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Clean Air Activists Accuse London Mayor Sadiq Khan of ‘Burying’ his Controversial Silvertown Tunnel Project as Election Nears

The £1.2 billion tunnel is arguably the biggest infrastructure project Khan has approved – but he rarely brings it up

Labour’s London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Photo: Mark Kerrison/Alamy

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Anti-pollution campaigners have pledged to make a huge new vehicle-only river crossing in east London an election issue for Labour’s Sadiq Khan, as he tries to secure an unprecedented third term as Mayor this May. 

Activists have expressed frustration with Transport for London (TfL – chaired by the Mayor) and the Mayor’s Office for “repeatedly refusing to answer basic questions” regarding the climate and pollution impacts of the so-called Silvertown Tunnel, which is set to connect the London boroughs of Greenwich and Newham next spring. 

It has led some anti-pollution activists to believe that Khan is trying to hide or downplay what constitutes his biggest infrastructure project as Mayor.

The Mayor, who has staked much of his mayoralty on reducing air pollution, rarely issues statements about the tunnel and has rarely visited it during construction – compared to frequent media events ahead of the new Elizabeth Line opening in 2022. 

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A recent letter to TfL and City Hall figures from the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition, seen by Byline Times, sharply criticised environmental modelling used by TfL for the Silvertown project as unrealistic – accusing the public transport body of concealing the true increase in pollution and CO2 emissions that the project will result in.

Transport for London’s modelling of the pollution impacts of the new tunnel assumes that new tolls will be put in place at both the Silvertown Tunnel and the existing Blackwall Tunnel (thereby limiting traffic demand) – and remain in place indefinitely, despite there being no legal guarantees. Anti-pollution campaigners fear that a future mayor could simply tear up the tolls and lead to a surge in polluting vehicle crossings. 

The authors of the letter requested specific information on the real increase in pollution and CO2 emissions from the Silvertown Tunnel in various scenarios, as well as the impact of increased traffic in Newham, but say all requests have been refused.

TfL says it does not have the capacity to conduct new forecasts on the potential pollution impacts. 

But Stop the Silvertown Tunnel activists are urging TfL and the Mayor’s Office to “respect London’s voters” by providing all the information needed for a true assessment of the impact of the Silvertown project. 

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Existing traffic modelling by TfL suggests that opening the Silvertown Tunnel to general traffic will increase traffic and emissions, regardless of new tolls. That could have major health impacts on communities at either end: Newham and Greenwich. Newham is among the poorest boroughs in London and already struggles with illegal pollution levels from toxic nitrogen dioxide (NOX) and particulate matter. 

When opened, the tunnel is expected to direct 20,000 to 30,000 additional vehicles into Newham every day, though TfL insists that as both boroughs are in the expanded Ultra Low Emissions Zone residents are partially protected. However, ULEZ does not actually ban the most polluting vehicles, it simply makes the drivers pay to pollute – suggesting that hundreds of heavy goods vehicles will still clog up the air. 

Campaigners say they failed to get a response from Transport for London to their concerns for nearly three months, until Byline Times approached TfL for comment. This week campaigners received a reply from Transport for London, apologising for the delay. 

A TfL spokesperson told campaigners: “TfL fully supports the need to keep London electoral candidates and Londoners updated on progress with implementing the Silvertown Tunnel.

“However, TfL must now focus on delivery and can no longer resource further theoretical modelling, given the comprehensive transport studies, quantitative assessments and modelling already undertaken and with findings now in the public domain, including environmental benefits.”

Photo: Anthony Hall/Alamy

“TfL remains both committed to monitoring the Tunnel’s impact and that electoral candidates will have the opportunity to meet and raise questions with TfL this year,” they added.

Dominic Leggett, a spokesperson for the Stop Silvertown Tunnel Coalition, responded by saying: “Tfl and the Mayor are outright refusing to tell candidates, the media, and the public the most basic facts about Silvertown. For example, with or without tolls, opening Silvertown will bring 20-30,000 more vehicles daily into Newham, already London’s most polluted borough – and one of its most economically vulnerable. 

“We’ve asked TfL and the Mayor a simple question; how many more tons of dangerous particulates and NOX air pollution will these extra vehicles bring into Newham each year? It’s an easy number for them to work out, but they’ve refused to answer. 

“Their refusal is entirely political; they just don’t want residents, voters and media to know that Mr Khan’s biggest project by far as Mayor, fundamentally undermines his own public health, social justice, air quality and climate policies.” 

He added that TfL modelling likely pollution levels under different scenarios was comparatively simple.

Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate Rob Blackie told Byline Times that, if he was elected, he would rename it the “Sadiq Khan Motorway” – adding that if Khan is proud of it “he should be delighted by this tribute to his mayoralty”.


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Greenwich Green Party activist and London Assembly candidate Karin Tearle added: “Sadiq Khan was responsible for reviewing Silvertown when he became Mayor. And we proposed doing better [pollution] modelling. He hasn’t done that, and he’s still not doing it now he’s going into a third term.”

A TfL spokesperson told Byline Times: “The Silvertown Tunnel scheme will address the chronic issues Londoners face at the Blackwall Tunnel as well as provide new cross-river public transport options by zero-emission buses. 

“We are committed to delivering an overall improvement in air quality and the introduction of user charging ensures we can effectively manage traffic to achieve this outcome.

“Furthermore, as part of our commitment to making sure this happens, we began a comprehensive programme of monitoring in 2020 and have regularly published reports and monitoring data which helps our understanding of local air quality. Once the tunnel opens in 2025, we will continue to publish reports showing how we are meeting our obligations, or if further changes need to be made.

“We are working hard to ensure that this essential new infrastructure is delivered with minimal impact to local communities and delivers transformative benefits to cross-river travel in east London. We will continue to engage with the local community and monitor traffic, air quality and other factors, both during construction and once the tunnel is open.”

The TfL spokesperson added: “Once open, the crossing, which is within the Ultra-Low Emission Zone and will be subject to a user charge [a toll], will also reduce congestion and improve the reliability and resilience of the Blackwall Tunnel, which will improve overall air quality in the local area.” 

Transport for London says that that Silvertown Tunnel will provide a “public transport-focused” river crossing, with zero-emission bus links across the Thames. But Leggett claims that while there will be a few hundred more buses put on per day over the crossing, an extra 15-30,000 private vehicles are expected to use the tunnel once open.

A Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition protest last summer, including Green Party Deputy Leader Zack Polanski. Photo: Ron Fassbender/Alamy

The scheme faced a six-month public inquiry before it was awarded a development consent order by the Secretary of State in 2017. It is being delivered by private consortium Riverlinx and will be managed by the firm after it’s completed – with TfL making repayments to the company for decades to come (TfL says this will come from the tolls). 

Since the “vast majority” of the funding is being raised through private finance, TfL says the cash cannot be diverted to an alternative scheme – such as making the tunnel open only for public or active transport options. SSTC campaigners contest this.

Construction on the tunnel is well underway, with the tunnelling completed and the new road network to allow access to the new tunnel now being installed.

The Mayor’s Office deferred to Transport for London for comment. 

This piece was updated after publication to include a fresh response from SSTC (we are happy to do the same for TfL).

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Josiah Mortimer also writes the On the Ground column, exclusive to the print edition of Byline Times.

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