We don’t need the Silvertown toll tunnel

Stewart McGill argues that the estimated £2bn cost of the project which will inevitably increase road traffic should be spent on improving London's public transport system instead.
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Stewart McGill argues that the estimated £2bn cost of the project which will inevitably increase road traffic should be spent on improving London’s public transport system instead

Silvertown Tunnel is a planned road tunnel under the Thames in East London connecting Greenwich and Silvertown.  It is being promoted by Transport for London. The stated intention of the tunnel is to reduce congestion through the Blackwall Tunnel.  Toll charges will be imposed on both tunnels when the Silvertown opens in 2025.  

The tunnel will include lanes for buses and HGVs but will not be accessible to walkers or cyclists. 

The Questions:


How much will it actually cost? 

The construction of the Silvertown Tunnel is planned to cost £1bn, however figures from the capital’s transport operator show that the overall cost for building, maintaining and operating the tunnel will be £65m a year from its scheduled opening in 2025.

The 30-year cost will be £2bn including interest payments.

This is around three times higher than the initial budget of £600m.

On 18 March 2021 auditors Ernst and Young indicated that Londoners will have to cover £100 million in revenue costs as Silvertown isn’t due to break even, even with income from tolls, until 2040. 

This will reduce the monies available for much needed public transport development.

The escalating cost of this project is unacceptable.  The proposal to put a charge to use the Blackwall Tunnel and the Silvertown White Elephant means every major river crossing to the east of the Rotherhithe Tunnel will be a toll road.  This is an outrageous tax on East London, home to some of the poorest communities in the country.

Why were the original costs so badly underestimated? 

Why should we believe the current costings are any more robust? 

How many other projects are being delayed by the physical impact of the tunnel’s construction such as the homes in Thameside West? 

What are the cancellation costs? London Mayor Sadiq Khan claims they are an important part of the case for keeping the project going but is reluctant to publish them. Why?

Environmental Issues

At a time when the world is in the grip of a climate emergency and transport strategies are looking for green alternatives to cars and lorries it is difficult to reconcile the development of a huge new car-led road tunnel under the Thames. 

All the evidence suggests that building more roads means more traffic, the experience of the Queensferry Bridge in Scotland is a recent example, particularly when public transport links remain poor. 

Those in favour of the tunnel claim that traffic levels will not rise excessively due to the tolls, and that the move to electric/hybrid cars will reduce the impact on pollution over time. 

This begs a number of questions and cites several examples that illustrate the difficulty of getting people out of their cars in London. 

I live in the affected area so all this has a direct impact on me. Right now if I want to go to Stoke Newington from South East London by car it would take me 40 minutes; if I went by public transport it would be an hour and a quarter with 3 separate connections, if I cycled it would be an hour, and it’s a horrible bike ride peppered with death traps and seeping with pollution. 

Even with a £10 toll I’ll still probably drive given the time and aggravation of using public transport, despite having a freedom pass. Many residents will not be able to afford these costs; they also add a significant burden on trades people in the area whose businesses are dependent on the use of vehicles.

If we are genuinely concerned about the environment and ease of moving around the city, why are we building infrastructure that will make people even more likely to jump into a car?

Why are we not spending the money on reducing those lengthy public transport and cycle times shown above, and making public transport more affordable? 

The lack of transparency surrounding this project is unacceptable. 

Groups opposing the tunnel have highlighted the lack of evidence to substantiate the claim that the road tolls will diminish traffic by amounts sufficient to reduce congestion and pollution. There has been a lack of recognition that until connectivity on public transport is improved, and the costs of travel are reduced to affordable levels, Londoners will have no alternative but to continue to drive in order to get around efficiently. 

Where are the economic impact assessments that account for the additional costs to Londoners who have no choice but to cross the river regularly?  

Where is the environmental impact assessment that measures how this new road tunnel will help London achieve its targets for reducing carbon emissions?

Mayor Khan has consistently failed to answer these and other crucial questions, such as what are the plans to improve connectivity between the north and south of the river in east London? What is the evidence that the proposed new bus lanes will reduce public transport journey times, as claimed? Why is East London considered to be the place for a road-driven model of travel infrastructure? And is that model going to be emulated elsewhere in the city?

While the Communist Party supports the move to electric cars, electrification does not in itself solve the basic problem and it is important for London’s economy to account for the time it will take to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles, given many Londoners simply cannot afford to upgrade their cars. 

Prof Greg Marsden, from the Institute for Transport Studies at Leeds University, warned there is a need to reduce demand for travel by at least 20% with a major shift away from the car if the country is to meet its climate goals.  

This can only be achieved by a major improvement to connectivity in public transport with a substantial reduction in the cost to passengers.  London has the most expensive transport system in Europe.  It’s high time all transport was brought back into public ownership and run for the benefit of the community rather than shareholders’ profits.

In January 2021, a group of 25 GPs, nurses and specialists wrote a letter to the mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs, asking him to join other local political leaders in opposition to the scheme.

It said the £2bn Silvertown tunnel project will increase traffic in some of the most deprived and polluted boroughs in the country – with a devastating impact on people’s health.

“We all view the proposal to build this tunnel as an assault on the health of east Londoners and on the climate….The Silvertown tunnel as proposed will funnel traffic, including heavy freight vehicles into areas of deprivation which already suffer disproportionately from so many adverse social determinants of health.”

In their letter, the doctors say building new roads always leads to more cars and argue the £2bn cost of the Silvertown tunnel should instead be used to boost walking and cycling and subsidise public transport.

There are key questions about how much additional HGV traffic is expected in the area and how this has been factored into the environmental impact assessment.  It is unclear why this proposal has been supported in preference, for instance, to building cycle bridges to reduce the bike journey times and improve safety for cyclists. 

The lack of detail surrounding environmental impact assessments means Londoners have insufficient information about the impact on the environment of the construction of the tunnel itself and related projects; the latter include proposed lorry parks, warehouses and other developments dependent on the tunnel’s construction.  

Who Benefits?

Assuming that a full cost-benefit analysis has been done, and that the project is expected to produce financial and other benefits, I ask – who will reap those benefits? The working people of London or big business and the companies involved in the tunnel’s construction?” 

The Future

London needs an integrated transport policy designed to get people onto public transport and out of their cars. McGill points out the Communist Party opposes the extension of charging that will disproportionately affect people who are low-paid and dependent on their cars for work, particularly shift workers, home care workers and delivery drivers.   

London needs a body charged with proposing and implementing radical solutions to the city’s travel and environmental problems consistent with developing patterns of work and leisure. 

In particular it needs improved public transport connectivity between the different quarters of the city, reducing the need for people to travel by car. 

London does not need the Silvertown Tunnel.

On 21 April 2021 London’s Communist Party is holding an online public meeting on the Silvertown Tunnel and the need for an integrated, public approach in the interests of people, not just business. Stewart McGill will be one of the speakers along with Alex Gordon from the Rail and Maritime Union and representatives of the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition.  

Stewart McGill, is a Communist Party candidate on the London Assembly List. 

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