Victoria Rance, a spokesperson for the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel campaign, spoke to Solidarity.
If it goes ahead the Silvertown Tunnel [a road tunnel under the Thames between Silvertown and the Greenwich Peninsula, supported by London's Labour mayor Sadiq Khan] will be a disaster for people in East London and for the fight against climate change.
It’s being justified as a way of easing congestion. The Blackwall Tunnel always has jams, and there’s not many river crossings in the East of London. But what they’re doing is making a crossing right next to the Blackwall Tunnel – it’s the same approach roads. There’s no new road infrastructure. The congestion will be truly awful.
Newham, where the northern end of the tunnel will be, is already the most polluted borough in the UK, despite having a very low level of car ownership, as well as the most BAME and the second poorest borough in London. It has very high rates of asthma and other health problems related to pollution. Now it will be made worse.
London traffic has doubled over the last ten years and in Greenwich, where the southern end of the tunnel will be and where I live, the number of miles driven on our roads has increased by 130m between 2014 and 2019.
That’s before you get to the wider issue of carbon emissions and why on earth money is being spent on this rather than on public transport and facilitating other forms of travel. We advocate a cycling and pedestrian crossing by the Thames Barrier, which could be done at a fraction of the cost. The Silvertown Tunnel will have no provision for cyclists to use it.
The tunnel is being funded through one of the last PFI schemes that was allowed. The corporate conglomerate building it, Riverlinx, will make its money back through the money from tolls on both the Silvertown and Blackwall tunnels. In other words they’ll be allowed to take money out of some of London poorest communities to make a profit. The amount they’ll be taking keeps growing; it was originally flagged as £600m, but it now seems it will be more like £2bn.
Transport for London could put a smaller toll on the Blackwall Tunnel now and use the money for clean, environmentally friendly and sustainable infrastructure.
There’s been campaigning on this since 2013, when the plans were first announced. In the early stages it was essentially a local community campaign; when the Development Consent Order went through in 2018, many of those campaigners felt exhausted. In 2019 we started a broader campaign. It was just when Extinction Rebellion was starting up, which really helped, and we also got support from Labour members, Greens Party members (I’m one), some Lib Dems and a campaigning group called Speak Out Woolwich.
We’ve been extremely active. We went to City Hall with a letter signed together by 1,500 local residents, which we got together in about a week – it showed the strength of feeling. That included support from fifteen head teachers. We went again with a group of school student climate strikers. We organised lots of demonstrations and some direct action. We’ve spoken at a range of organisations, at XR demonstrations and now at Labour Parties and union branches too.
It’s a cross-party, grassroots campaign. In terms of politicians, Sian Berry, the Green mayoral candidate, has supported us, and now Luisa Porritt, the Lib Dem candidate, has expressed support too.
There is now something of a grassroots movement in the Labour Party. Our friends in South East London Labour for a Green New Deal have been coordinating motions for people to use, and they’ve been passed in quite a number of wards and CLPs. All three Greenwich CLPs have called for pause and review, and now Eltham has called for cancellation. Peninsula Branch Labour Party, in the ward where the tunnel is going to be built, has also called for cancellation.
This week [on 17 Feb] Islington South CLP passed a motion, with overwhelming support, which was particularly significant as Heidi Alexander, the deputy mayor of London, intervened to try to stop it. She’s been sending out letters and “fact sheets” full of things that simply aren’t true.
There’s a problem of Labour politicians, councillors and GLA members, privately express supporting but apparently feeling unable to say or do anything publicly. Despite some private rumblings, Greenwich’s Labour council has not said anything publicly, and we’ve heard the council leader Danny Thorpe has been obstructive in wider South London Labour coordination on this.
The key thing is winning more grassroots support in the Labour Party, and trade union support is important too. We’ve recently made links with Newham trades council.