Can you hear that? That sound? That’s the sound of a massive building project underway, happening right under the streets of London town. It’s being led by Transport for London and promises to reduce traffic congestion – but not everyone’s happy.
Environment experts claim that the tunnel will increase pollution and contribute to the climate crisis. Last week, it made headlines yet again when Greenwich council voted to oppose it – meaning that, along with Newham council, the two boroughs primarily served by it don’t support it being built.
If you don’t know what the heck is going on, here’s everything you should know about the Silvertown Tunnel project.
What is it?
Silvertown Tunnel is your run-of-the-mill, enormous twin-bore road tunnel, being built beneath the Thames to link the Greenwich Peninsula and west Silvertown. It’s near London City Airport and Canary Wharf, and the intention is to reduce traffic at the nearby Blackwall Tunnel. It’s also generating a huge amount of controversy.
When will it open?
Site works have already started and it’s projected that the south-east London tunnel will be finished and open by 2025. According to TfL, an initial consultation took place for the tunnel in 2014. Following a six-month public enquiry, the project has been in the works since its construction contract was awarded in late 2019 – so it’s already almost a decade old. Oh, and the tunnel will not be open for use by pedestrians and cyclists, meaning that it’s only accessible to cars, large goods vehicles, and buses.
How much does it cost?
It’s costing a hell of a lot. According to a spokesperson from TfL in August 2021, the construction costs for the Silvertown Tunnel are ‘floating around the £1bn mark’. However, reports say that it will cost closer to £2bn, based on figures from TfL’s published accounts.
When it opens, the tunnel will be tolled alongside the Blackwall Tunnel, with user charges planned to repay the construction costs and cover any operational and maintenance works for 25 years after. TfL said that the planned charge will ‘ensure overall traffic volumes and associated carbon emissions do not increase’. But we’re assuming that expected traffic levels will be high enough to pay it off.
Why are people angry?
A lot of people are kind of (okay, very) pissed off about the project. That’s because experts claim that actually, the tunnel will increase traffic levels rather than reducing them.
Simon Pirani is a participant of the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel coalition and a senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. ‘The big challenge for London is to reduce the number of cars because of climate change,’ Pirani said to Time Out. ‘More roads produce more traffic. This is why the tunnel cannot go ahead.’
Recently, councillors in Greenwich and Newham – the two boroughs primarily served by tunnel – voted to oppose it. Lewisham and Hackney councils voted to oppose it back in 2015. With more council support, campaigners are hoping that Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn will now change his mind about the project and pause the works for an in-depth review. He has been urged to publish the cost of cancelling the tunnel by members of the London Assembly.
Is any action being taken?
In July last year, The Independent reported that members of the London Labour regional conference voted for Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to scrap the construction of the tunnel in an effort to meet climate targets. It followed an open letter in April 2021 sent to the mayor and Grant Shapps, secretary of state for transport, by top climate scientists, transport experts and economists, urging them to cancel the project due to its contributions to the UK’s excessive greenhouse gas emissions. But so far, it seems like the tunnel is continuing – full steam ahead.
What’s the mayor saying?
Time Out contacted Sadiq Khan in August last year about the controversy surrounding the tunnel. A spokesperson for the mayor said:
‘Anyone who has been caught in traffic due to a problem in the Blackwall Tunnel will know that there is an urgent need for another river crossing in this part of London. Extensive modelling shows that the introduction of tolls on both tunnels at Silvertown and Blackwall will mean no overall increase in traffic and an overall improvement in air quality.
The new tunnel will mean fewer idling vehicles and better local bus services, including double deck zero emission buses which currently can’t operate across the river because of the restrictive size of the Blackwall tunnel. The extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) from this October – covering the Silvertown area – will play a crucial role in tackling congestion and improving air quality.’
The ULEZ was brought in to help air quality in central London – ensuring that road vehicles meet emissions standards or else requiring drivers to pay a daily charge. But another thing you could do is take public transport or ride a bike. Just a thought.