Mayor Boris Johnson’s deputy has backed Greenwich Council’s decision to allow a cruise liner terminal to be built at Enderby Wharf, east Greenwich, despite residents’ fears that it will increase air pollution in the area.
The Conservative administration at City Hall sided with the Labour council on last month’s go-ahead for the scheme, even though locals are demanding the terminal is fitted with on-shore power generation to save the area from being exposed to emissions from the dirty fuel that cruise ships usually use.
A version of the scheme was originally approved in 2011, but new plans put forward this year propose ships staying longer at the site, using their own fuel, rather than shore-side power as recommended by the European Union.
Despite councillors hearing last month that the scheme will actually only create 88 jobs, a City Hall press release persists with the original claim that the scheme will lead to 500 jobs.
Deputy mayor Edward Lister – a former leader of Wandsworth Council – took the decision, saying: “We have worked with the local authority and the developer to ensure the new terminal and surrounding infrastructure will meet the needs of thousands of tourists coming to the city each year.
“It will provide a major boost to tourism, benefit the local economy and further contribute to London’s status as a world leading city.”
City Hall said it relied on an separate independent assessment to the one revealed to Greenwich councillors just days before last month’s planning meeting.
“While it recognised there could be some moderate adverse impact on occasion, it also acknowledged the height, speed and heat of ship emissions disperse more efficiently in comparison to motor vehicles,” it said.
“Recognising the levels of background pollution already experienced in the borough, £400,000 has been secured towards ongoing environmental monitoring or improving air quality through the Royal Borough of Greenwich’s Air Quality Action Plan.”
For Greenwich Council, regeneration cabinet member Danny Thorpe said: “This landmark cruise liner development will bring many thousands more visitors to the borough, and provide a major boost to tourism.
“The council is committed to improving air quality in the borough, and recognises that this was an area of concern for local residents. I hope that it will be reassuring for residents to learn that the Mayor has submitted our measures to independent scrutiny and found them to be satisfactory.”
Residents in the area already complain of feeling under siege by politicians and developers, and many may find hearing a Labour councillor endorse Boris Johnson’s administration on air pollution – not the Conservative mayor’s strongest point – represents a new smack in the face.
Last week, the East Greenwich Residents Association called on council leader Denise Hyland to step down from its main planning committee after it emerged she was the only one of London’s 28 council leaders to take a direct role in deciding whether new developments should go ahead.
Hyland’s comments during the meeting were also leaked to Private Eye magazine, leading to the council’s first appearance in the satirical publication for many years.
Local residents in east Greenwich are demanding council leader Denise Hyland stands down from the borough’s main planning committee after it was revealed she is the only council leader in London who is regularly directly involved in taking decisions about major new developments.
The East Greenwich Residents Association has made the call following Hyland’s role in pushing through plans for a controversial cruise liner terminal in the area.
Hyland, who has led the council since June 2014, told the planning meeting that the terminal’s planned 31-storey residential tower was “nothing”, criticising residents for not bringing up air pollution fears when the proposals first came before the planning committee some years back – even though plans for the terminal have substantially changed since then.
She also said that on a trip to a cruise terminal in Southampton, she could not “see” any air pollution there – despite the fact that it is usually invisible. Her performance at the planning board earned her an appearance in this week’s Private Eye magazine.
The planning board shrugged off air pollution concerns about the London City Cruise Port, and the lack of any comprehensive, timely environmental assessment. It accepted developers’ claims that it would be too expensive to install on-shore generating equipment which would reduce the impact of ships spending extended stays at the terminal, despite European guidelines recommending this system is used.
Local MP Matt Pennycook and councillors Stephen Brain and Chris Lloyd were among the objectors, along with Tower Hamlets councillors and Isle of Dogs residents.
Research by EGRA – independently verified by this website – shows no other borough in London allows its leader such a prominent role in taking planning decisions, a role where politics should play no part.
Large or contentious decisions across Greenwich borough are usually taken by a committee of 14 councillors, called the Planning Board.
Most boroughs operate a similar system – though using different names for the committees – which usually see less high-profile cases taken by area committees.
But Denise Hyland is the only one of London’s 28 council leaders (a further four are run by elected mayors) to regularly sit on her council’s main planning committee.
The only other council to permit a formal role for its leader in planning decisions is the controversial Conservative-run authority in Barnet. But even here, Richard Cornelius is only a substitute member of its planning committee, deputising for his fellow Conservative councillors where necessary – a role he hasn’t carried out since June 2014.
Indeed, 13 out of London’s 32 boroughs only allow backbench councillors to take major planning decisions – removing any suspicion that may arise from having high-profile councillors taking sensitive formal decisions.
Of the 14 planning board meetings held since Hyland became leader, she has attended nine of them.
This continues a system which began under Hyland’s predecessor Chris Roberts, who started sitting on the planning board in 2007. Roberts did not take part in the 2011 meeting which gave the terminal its original green light, after appearing on TV promoting the scheme.
But Hyland – then regeneration cabinet member – did take part in that meeting, then praising the scheme as “world class”.
In May, ahead of the planning board’s decision, the London City Cruise Port’s chief executive Kate O’Hara was invited to the council’s £20,000 private mayor-making ceremony, attended by Hyland.
Advice from the Local Government Association says that “members of a planning committee… need to avoid any appearance of bias or of having predetermined their views before taking a decision on a planning application or on planning policies”.
Hyland’s successor in that role, Danny Thorpe, has inherited her position the board. Just six other boroughs – Barking, Camden, Harrow, Lambeth, Newham and Richmond – allow his counterparts to assist in making planning decisions.
In an open letter to Hyland, EGRA’s executive committee says:
“We are concerned that your presence as council leader alongside the regeneration cabinet member could make the planning board susceptible to political pressure and decisions made on policy and party lines rather than in the wider public or community interest.
“This concern is reinforced by your tendency and Councillor Thorpe’s tendency to sum up and make your positions known before voting takes place. The recent decision on the cruise liner terminal is a good case in point.
“Our community feels extremely frustrated at the way in which our attempts to raise legitimate concerns over the development of our area are not being taken seriously and are being batted away through a process that is less than scrupulous at times and is susceptible to what we perceive as potential political interference.
“We call on you to restore our confidence in the borough and the decisions it makes and we formally request that you step down from the Planning Board. We need to have confidence that our borough is making the right decisions for the right reasons and operating in the same way as other London boroughs as part of the statutory process.”
Residents are now pinning their hopes on London mayor Boris Johnson “calling in” the application to decide himself – a move supported by Liberal Democrat, Green and Conservative members on the London Assembly. Tower Hamlets Council has since backed away from its opposition to the scheme. A decision is expected soon.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that European money could have been available to help fund the London City Cruise Port fund on-shore generating equipment.
Trade publication Ship Technology, which accuses the developers of “cutting corners”, reports that the EU can fund up to half the costs of research and 20% of the costs of installation if a member state opts to use such a system. But councillors were not told this before they made their decision.
7pm update: Former Greenwich councillor Hayley Fletcher, who sat on the planning board alongside council leader Chris Roberts, responded to this story…
It’s sure to annoy the image-conscious
Royal Greenwich Greenwich Council press office, while it’ll no doubt cause sniggers among the Labour councillors who are unhappy with their leader’s performance. After all, her bullying predecessor managed to keep himself out of the Eye…
(Thanks to the Greenwich Green Party for scanning it in.)
I couldn’t be at Woolwich Town Hall, so have to leave you in the hands of those who were and who tweeted from the meeting. The plans were approved 6-3, with one abstenion, after a motion calling for approval to be deferred was defeated.
The crucial issue is that the ships will be generating their own power, using much dirtier fuels – critics say it’ll be the equivalent of having 50 lorries running their engines all day and night, and that the terminal should use its own power sources, as used in New York and Amsterdam and demanded by an EU directive.
But these fears were dismissed by councillors, who also heard the terminal will only provide 88 jobs – down from the 500-odd previously mooted.
It’s not the first time air quality concerns have been brushed aside on a major planning application – this happened most recently in March 2014, when outline plans for an Ikea store, also in east Greenwich, were approved.
Those that were there also managed to hear leading councillors make hugely simplistic assumptions about the effect of the terminal.
Forget the charms of the West End – leisure cabinet member Miranda Williams claimed the development will bring tourists to Woolwich and Eltham…
(Worth noting that Stewart Christie is in the Greenwich Lib Dems, Simon Edge in the Greenwich Greens.)
Regeneration member Danny Thorpe claimed the only sources of air pollution in east Greenwich came from Blackwall Tunnel queues and buses – conveniently ignoring the horrendous westbound traffic through Greenwich town centre, which in the 1990s led the council to consider building a bypass under the Thames.
And to top the lot, council leader Denise Hyland told residents that they should have raised air quality issues when the terminal first came before planning some years back – despite the fact that the new plan envisages cruise liners staying for longer. It’s also worth pointing out that Greenwich Council wasn’t making its readings from nitrogen dioxide tubes public at the time.
Peninsula ward councillor Chris Lloyd defended residents, along with colleague Stephen Brain, and local MP Matt Pennycook asked for the matter to be deferred. Conservative councillor Matt Clare also spoke against the scheme, along with his Tower Hamlets counterpart Chris Chapman.
I suspect we’ll be returning to this issue before too long.
9am update: Any Greenwich resident who wishes to ask a question of Greenwich Council regarding this can submit a question to next Wednesday’s council meeting – email committees[at]royalgreenwich.gov.uk by noon today.
Reaction from Tower Hamlets Labour councillor Candida Ronald…
…and local MP Matt Pennycook.
Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland has mocked the the number of signatures on a petition calling for the closure of its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time, saying: “I didn’t know the Tories and Liberal Democrats had so many members.”
Hyland also predicted other boroughs would join Greenwich’s judicial review into communities secretary Eric Pickles’ order demanding the council closes the controversial weekly.
The petition, started last Thursday by Stewart Christie – a Liberal Democrat candidate in last year’s council election – had gained 106 signatures ahead of last night’s full council meeting, the last before 7 May’s general election.
Responding to a question from Conservative group leader Spencer Drury, Hyland launched into a defence of the paper that lasted nearly seven minutes, reiterating the council’s claim that GT actually saves it money.
“Our advice from our QC is that the Secretary of State has acted illegally, and that is why we are applying to the court to judicially review the decision,” she said.
“And as for the people who set up the website ‘cease Greenwich Time publication now’, which I believe has 106 [signatures] on it – given the Tories and Lib Dems seem to have formed a coalition around Greenwich Time, I didn’t know they had so many members,” Hyland added to laughter from her own councillors.
Hyland also refused to give details of costs for the judicial review when pressed by Conservative deputy leader Matt Hartley.
“Essentially, I don’t think we’ll lose. I think we have a strong case, and in addition I fully expect other boroughs to join in on that JR [judicial review]. That would be my expectation,” she said.
Pressed again for a “worst case scenario” figure, she added: “We’ll wait and see what the lawyers say it will cost us, but obviously, it will not cost us a penny when we win.”
Hyland’s confidence may be explained by Greenwich sharing its Greenwich Time printing contract with eight other boroughs – Brent, Havering, Hackney, Hounslow, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest, who all use Trinity Mirror to print a variety of council publications.
The general election – with its “purdah” rules on public bodies making controversial decisions – complicates matters, but Pickles’ direction states that Greenwich must not produce more than four council publications in the year from 31 March. This means the weekly GT would not breach the order until late April – giving other councils plenty of time to join in any legal action.
The Tower Hamlets question
Earlier, Hyland had questioned why Tower Hamlets Council – which is being partly-run by commissioners sent in by Pickles following allegations of malpractice – was still being allowed to publish England’s only other weekly council publication, East End Life.
“I find it extraordinary that Eric Pickles has sent commissioners into Tower Hamlets, yet Tower Hamlets is still producing East End Life on a weekly basis.
“The commissioner himself has even put an article in there,” she said to laughter.
“They haven’t had a notice, they haven’t had a direction,” she added.
In fact, Pickles did begin the process of taking action against East End Life in September, although has pulled back since sending commissioners into Tower Hamlets in December.
As for the article by a commissioner, East End Life merely reported a decision by Sir Ken Knight in its 16 March issue – he didn’t write a piece for it.
The situation with Tower Hamlets and East End Life may become clearer in the coming weeks, as Sir Ken and colleague Max Casey were given three months to draw up a plan to rectify the problems with Tower Hamlets – including a “plan for publicity”.
Asked by Spencer Drury (hear audio above) if Greenwich would close GT if Tower Hamlets closed East End Life, Hyland said: “Look, we all have choices about things and it’s this Labour administration’s choice to inform the public of different events and publish our statutory adverts that the government still say need to be published in the press. Essentially, its our choice to do that and we think it’s the most cost-effective way.
“There may be a few people – and we know who they are – who don’t agree with that. And you’re entitled to your opinion.”
“But you’re not in charge of the council,” she added, to laughter from her Labour colleagues.
No research into households without internet
After she used the “digital divide” as a justification for publishing GT, Hyland was asked what research the council had done into households without internet access. She only said this was work for “our digital centre” to take on.
She added: “What we do know is that vast numbers of people head to our public libraries to use the IT that’s there, and how valued that is. And I know from the people who go into my surgery – and I’m sure that’s relicated right around this chamber – that many people may have an email address but they don’t have broadband, and therefore they have to come into these facilities.
“With the amount of money this council has to save we will promote more and more online, but at the same time, we will do everything we can do lower that digital divide and make sure people have access to the web.”
Low newspaper distribution
Hyland also pointed out the low circulation of the News Shopper and Mercury titles in the borough.
“In Charlton, only 63 homes get the Mercury, so 99% of Charlton don’t get the Mercury,” she said.
“Greenwich – less than 1% get the Mercury, 99% don’t get it. Eltham – 88% don’t get it. Blackheath – three-quarters don’t get it. Abbey Wood – more than two-thirds don’t get it. And the News Shopper’s similar.”
Hyland also claimed there were small businesses in Greenwich borough that “just will not pay for adverts in the independent press – whereas they can buy space in Greenwich Time that is a lot cheaper”.
“And also we don’t use massage parlours. We don’t advertise those, and thank goodness, and we would find it hard to give our business to organisations that include adverts in that way.”
Neither the Mercury nor the News Shopper were present in Woolwich Town Hall last night to report on proceedings.
Proposals by Greenwich Council’s Conservatives to cancel 2017’s return of the tall ships were thrown out last night as councillors passed the borough’s annual budget.
There was very little detail to last night’s budget – much of it had been decided last year as part of a plan to freeze council tax for two years – and so Greenwich avoided the anti-cuts protests that hit Lewisham and Lambeth councils.
But the Tories had suggested scrapping the return of the Tall Ships Race in 2017 – said to cost the council £1.7million – to spend the money on a “welfare assistance plus” scheme instead, to help residents in need.
It was a clear attempt to attack Labour from the left – but councillors from the ruling party insisted the tall ships event was money well spent, as it provided a boost to the borough’s businesses.
Here’s some video of the debate. The sound’s a bit iffy, but I hope it’s useful. Want to read along? It’s point 11 of the agenda.
It kicks off with council leader Denise Hyland introducing the budget. This isn’t massively interesting (not her fault, it never is) but it’s here so you have as much of the debate as possible.
Then things start to liven up as Conservative leader Spencer Drury responds, and introduces the Tories’ amendment that would scrap the tall ships and fund Lewisham-style local assemblies (although the Tories only planned to have four of these).
Deputy leader John Fahy wasn’t impressed and laid into the Tories’ national record.
Regeneration cabinet member Danny Thorpe, who’s after Fahy’s job, competed with the deputy leader for who could criticise the Tories the most.
Then Charlton councillor Gary Parker addressed the Tories’ motion itself, criticising plans to axe funding for trade union representatives. Health cabinet member David Gardner said the council’s existing policies would help people in “desperate need”, compared Greenwich with Tory Bexley (this happens fairly regularly), and said the £1.7m tall ships funding had already been spent (a claim disputed by Spencer Drury).
Environment cabinet member Jackie Smith and Labour backbencher Aidan Smith piled into the Tories. “If you really care about the poor,” asked Aidan, “why don’t you publicly condemn the bedroom tax?”
For the Tories, Matt Hartley said he was offering “constructive suggestions” and complained about the response, channelling Neil Kinnock.
“And they call us the nasty party? How on earth can Labour councillors – Labour councillors – prioritise spending £1.7 million on the tall ships over extra help for the people most in need in this borough.”
Labour leader Denise Hyland was unimpressed. “It’s no good shakng your head… you want to pretend you are the nice party. My God.
“It is the most vulnerable people, people who need that spare room – for the partner to get a good night’s rest, or for children, or they have noisy equipment – those people come to our surgeries and tell us they need a spare room, despite your party’s bedroom tax.”
Labour’s version of the budget was passed, with the Tories abstaining.
Otherwise, it was pretty uneventful – councillors amused themselves afterwards by spending a whole hour on a motion criticising the Tories, providing a cue for non-masochists to retire to the pub. So much now seems to come down to Tories complaining about Greenwich Time, and Labour members laughing at them.
But here’s Denise Hyland saying she knows nothing about any councillor resigning so there can be a by-election on general election day (Matt Hartley is asking because Greenwich West councillor Matt Pennycook is his rival in Greenwich & Woolwich). (This is a repeat of a question asked last month.)
Here’s Denise Hyland talking about plans to step up “community engagement” – and why they’re not being shared with Tory leader Spencer Drury, who’ll have to read about them first in Greenwich Time.
Here’s Spencer Drury asking about the future of Greenwich Time…
…and Geoff Brighty asking about impartiality and Greenwich Time during the election.
At one point in the meeting, cabinet member Miranda Williams was waving a copy of Greenwich Time about to make a point about libraries. So kudos to John Fahy, who had a copy of a real local newspaper on his desk.
5.15pm update: Buried in a written answer (question eight) – Greenwich will start webcasting meetings later this year. “The introduction of webcasting for some Council meetings later this year will enable even more residents to engage with Council decision making,” Denise Hyland says.
As with most propaganda, it’s not what they tell you that matters – it’s what they’re not telling you.
So it’s striking that Greenwich Council’s weekly Pravda, Greenwich Time, has neglected to tell readers about leader Denise Hyland’s trip to Westminster last month to lobby MPs for the Silvertown Tunnel.
Think the Bridge The Gap campaign is dead? Think again. The language may have changed, but Greenwich still wants the Silvertown Tunnel.
Back on 12 January, Hyland travelled from Woolwich Town Hall to Portcullis House to meet the Transport Select Committee (which, by DLR and Jubilee Line, involves crossing the Thames five times) along with others demanding more roads across the river. She was accompanied by Newham’s elected mayor, Sir Robin Wales.
Not that the MPs took much persuading, mind. As a scrutiny exercise, it was largely a waste of time. It wasn’t a session about whether strategic river crossings (across England, not just in London) are any good – it was a session about why these things can’t be built quickly. It was also barely reported. So here’s an attempt to play catch-up.
Two more evidence sessions followed Hyland’s, the final of which took place last Monday. I sat through most of them, so I hope I can fit what happened in some proper context.
I should point out I’m on the committee of No to Silvertown Tunnel, so I’m not exactly coming at this from a neutral angle, which won’t surprise you. This enormous post doesn’t represent that group’s views.
A cosy committee, a flawed inquiry
Those who remember the days of the redoubtable Gwyneth Dunwoody using these sessions to tear hapless policymakers to shred will be a little disappointed. Of the eight others who joined Hyland to give evidence on 12 January, eight wanted more roads across the Thames.
In all three sessions, the only dissenter from the assumption that all roadbuilding is good roadbuilding was the Campaign for Better Transport‘s boss, Stephen Joseph. He snuck some doubts about Thames crossings into a session on a bridge across the Mersey.
One of the MPs on the select committee has certainly made his views known in the past. Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick is already a keen backer of the Silvertown Tunnel. In 2007, the Poplar and Limehouse MP accepted a free trip to Bangladesh for him and his wife from Canary Wharf Group, which is also a keen backer of the Silvertown Tunnel.
Fitzpatrick, whose recently-expressed views on cycle superhighways eerily coincides with those of Canary Wharf Group, spent the session bowling low balls for Hyland and Newham’s elected mayor Sir Robin Wales, as well as TfL’s director of planning Michele Dix and Boris Johnson’s transport deputy Isabel Dedring.
The session featuring Hyland and Wales wasn’t a brilliantly-conceived one. The committee bundled the vexed question of east London crossings – which have more to do with urban traffic issues than moving freight across the country – in with the equally difficult subject of crossings between Kent and Essex.
The committee came looking for consensus – but by bundling these issues together, it wasn’t going to get it.
There’d been no previous indication that the London crossings would be on the agenda for the committee’s inquiry – after all, this is a devolved issue, where Westminster MPs should arguably keep their beaks out.
But the presence of the London Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive Colin Stanbridge, whose literature was left around the committee room after the session, suggests the lobbying organisation may have helped get them on the agenda.
Local bridges for local people – really?
This was a session on “strategic crossings”, yet Hyland told the committee she wanted “local bridges for local people”. One obvious question would have been for an MP to ask how the Silvertown Tunnel fitted into that – but it didn’t come.
Even Sir Robin Wales, an ardent fan of road-building who may as well have brought a kitten and a shotgun into the session to back up his demand for a bridge at Gallions, was lukewarm about Silvertown.
“We are not opposed to Silvertown — we get its congestion — but we do not think it contributes to regeneration in the way that Gallions will do,” he told the committee.
Greenwich will also get Silvertown’s congestion, but Hyland didn’t acknowledge this. Her opening gambit, in response to chair Louise Ellman, revealed the flaws in the current process.
“The Royal Borough of Greenwich supports the construction of a new tunnel at Silvertown and a vehicular crossing at Gallions Reach, but as part of a package of crossings between Blackwall and Dartford,” she replied.
“In our view, it needs to recognise that the provision of public transport must be integral with any vehicular crossing. For example, we would like to see a London Overground extension come over to Thamesmead and Abbey Wood.
“In terms of Silvertown, we would like to see the DLR extension coming out as far as Eltham, and for the DLR as well to go to Thamesmead [via Gallions].”
Yet there isn’t a package on the agenda other than more new roads.
This website understands Hyland has been lobbying City Hall for the Overground to Thamesmead – yet so far, TfL is sticking its head in the sand, preferring only to extend it to Barking Riverside in the short-term.
TfL also sees the DLR from Silvertown to Eltham – which would have to be built on stilts above the A102, and risks overloading North Greenwich tube station – as a non-starter.
Michele Dix offered a glimmer of hope for the DLR to Thamesmead – “we will also be looking at Gallions for the possibility of potentially having the DLR run along that bridge”. But that was all.
Silvertown sacrifice – traffic could double
What remains undeniable is that people who live close to roads that’ll be hit by Silvertown are being offered up as sacrifices to get construction going elsewhere.
And this appeasement by Hyland and Wales – effectively, “let them have Silvertown and we’ll get Gallions” – could have disastrous consequences if you’re in an affected area.
Isabel Dedring admitted traffic on some local roads could double under TfL’s plans.
“There is going to be significant growth in local concerns as we go through the process, because now we are bringing forward the actual details of the proposals and people are going to say, ‘I like the idea of a bridge but not when I discover that it is going to lead to a doubling of traffic on my road.’ That is inevitable with these kinds of projects,” she said.
“Hopefully, we can make the case that the strategic importance of it for London, and indeed for the local areas, outweighs the local issues.
“There is going to be that noise. That will be the immediate issue for the consensus. It is how loud the local issues become.”
Essentially, the more people find out, the more they don’t like it. That’s why TfL has been so consistently vague on its Silvertown proposals – and why you read so little about it in Greenwich Time.
Bridge The Gap: The corpse twitches
Batting away another simple ball from Jim Fitzpatrick, Denise Hyland claimed “we have put a lot of pressure on TfL to put public transport as an integral part of the crossings”.
That’s a marked difference from the approach taken by predecessor Chris Roberts, but is simply not true as far as the Silvertown Tunnel is concerned.
Indeed, the council’s report into extending the DLR to Eltham via the Silvertown Tunnel – which concluded that a link as far as Kidbrooke was feasible, but was doubtful about proceeding further – was not even presented to City Hall.
While a tunnel at Silvertown would provide an opportunity to run new bus routes across the Thames, there is nothing stopping TfL making more use of the existing tunnel to run services to Canary Wharf and points north – something the council has failed to lobby for.
The Blackwall Tunnel may be good enough for Kent commuter coaches to Canary Wharf, but local politicians and TfL seem to content simply to route services into North Greenwich station instead, piling more pressure on it.
Greenwich Council’s response to last autumn’s Silvertown Tunnel consultation was to back it, but demand the mythical Eltham DLR extension as well as other measures.
But what happens when TfL turns around and refuses the DLR to Eltham?
The question the MPs didn’t ask – and a futile search for consenus
Real scrutiny would have been asking if Hyland’s support for Silvertown or Gallions was conditional on them carrying public transport. That question didn’t come.
Because nobody’s asking that question, it’s storing up problems for the future.
On Silvertown alone, the consensus the Transport Committee hoped to find simply doesn’t exist. Locally, rank and file Labour members in both Greenwich & Woolwich and Eltham voted to oppose the Silvertown Tunnel – but were ignored by the council their party purports to control.
Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich – and Greenwich West councillor – Matt Pennycook has written about his grave doubts about the scheme.
Worse still, the old problem of bullying in Greenwich Labour was also used to secure support for the tunnel. This website understands some newer councillors in the south of Greenwich borough were threatened with deselection by a senior party figure if they didn’t back the Silvertown Tunnel in an internal group vote.
Nobody expects a panel of Westminster MPs to be fully conversant with the murky underbelly of local politics in different areas. But none of them asked Hyland – or any of the other council representatives there – if her views really represented local opinion.
The nearest they got was when Jim Fitzpatrick asked if the Labour group on the London Assembly was on board. He knew the answer, but the question was clearly designed to demonstrate some kind of consensus.
Surrender over Silvertown – but defending Dartford?
There’s also the case of the brave Labour representative who knows that if you add extra capacity to an already-existing river crossing, you’re simply going to make surrounding roads worse.
Simon Thomson, Labour candidate for Dartford, should know – he was originally selected as a candidate for Greenwich Council in Blackheath Westcombe ward, before bagging the chance to go toe-to-toe with the Tories in this bellwether seat.
When Boris Johnson pledged to build a further Dartford crossing (he doesn’t have the power, of course) Thompson wrote and complained. When Johnson pledges a similar threat in Greenwich – where he actually does have power – Hyland and her colleagues have backed away.
Indeed, Greenwich recently advertised for a “director of regeneration”, with a job description which includes lobbying for Silvertown.
Maybe it’s a reflection of the differing political cultures in Dartford and Greenwich – Labour can never get complacent in a seat like Dartford – but it’s a real indication of just what’s gone wrong in Greenwich.
Regeneration, regeneration, regeneration
Perhaps Dartford Labour’s Simon Thomson should have been at the final committee hearing, held last Monday inside the Palace of Westminster itself. Here, the committee heard from Tim Healey, deputy chair of the Association of Civil Engineers’ Roads Sector Interest Group (essentially, a group of roadbuilders) that extra crossings at Dartford had boosted regeneration there.
Yes, that’s the same Dartford as the Kent town that’s been dying on its backside for years. The roads had brought Bluewater shopping centre, which lies in Dartford borough – but there was no mention that this was at the expense of Dartford itself.
Futureproofing? Be careful what you wish for
Another absurd piece of evidence accepted without questioning by the committee came from Healey’s colleague, Roads Sector Interest Group chair Mike Llywelyn-Jones. He suggested that new roads should be “futureproofed” so they can cope with anticipated demand in 30 years’ time – ignoring a body of evidence that indicates roads generate demand, rather than simply accommodate it.
If London’s roads had been “futureproofed” in the 1970s to cope with anticipated demand today, some of the capital’s most popular neighbourhoods simply wouldn’t exist today.
Brockley Central is a local blog that has come out in support of the Silvertown Tunnel. Yet the heart of the area would have been ripped out if the Ringways scheme had gone ahead, smashing the South Cross Route through Brockley Cross.
Instead, Brockley has undergone a remarkable revitalisation led by public transport investment, making it a desirable place to live. Where there once would have been motorway gantries, there’s now a tasteful bar called The Gantry.
Those who love seeing Brockley’s Victorian terraces on Location, Location, Location might want to think about the fate of SE4 if the Ringways had gone ahead before they condemn other areas to more traffic, traffic, traffic.
‘Silvertown should the last built… or never be built’
Here’s the bit that those who skip straight to the comments box to write “something must be done” will ignore. It’s worth pointing out the views of former Greater London Council transport planner John Elliott, who twice submitted evidence to the inquiry but wasn’t asked to speak to the committee. He did get to speak to the Wharf newspaper.
“”The historical record for these kinds of packages is they build one and run out of money,” he said. “There are big gaps along the Thames and yet they want to build it next to one already there, and a very busy one at that.
“Silvertown should be the last crossing built or, preferably, never built.”
He wants to see a pan-London congestion charge before any new roads are built.
“It’s time for a congestion charge within the M25,” he wrote. “It could be relatively popular, keeping out long distance car commuters and tackling the problem across the whole of London, freeing up more space for essential commercial traffic.
“Rather than tolls on individual crossings, we need other congestion charges.”
Essentially, he argues that building a tunnel at Silvertown, or even bridges at Gallions Reach or Belvedere, will be a waste of time until London politicians have the courage to get to grip with traffic levels in the capital.
But in a committee that had made its mind up anyway, this voice wasn’t heard. He wasn’t called to give evidence.
Flawed committee, flawed scrutiny – time for councillors to step up
By allowing Boris Johnson to have boxed her in over the Silvertown Tunnel, Denise Hyland could be about to wreak incalculable harm to the people of Greenwich she purports to represent. Getting across the river may be a hassle, but putting more traffic onto the borough’s streets won’t help.
Greenwich Council’s failure to properly challenge the Silvertown Tunnel is all the more worrying because of the failure of others to properly scrutinise it. The MPs on the Transport Scrutiny Committee had clearly made their minds up that new roads were good things. And here in the capital, Tories and Labour on the London Assembly teamed up to vote down a motion criticising the mayor’s spending on river crossings (see video).
While individual assembly members – notably Caroline Pidgeon and Darren Johnson – have done exemplary work on Boris Johnson’s road-building plans, the assembly as a body has been rendered largely useless on this issue because of the Labour group at City Hall’s blindness to the issue.
Opponents have also had their blind spots – falling for TfL’s narrative of treating the crossings as a whole, rather than scrutinising each one and spotting the individual flaws. After all, the problem of traffic trumps the problem of getting across the river, which can be eased with public transport initiatives.
Treated individually, TfL’s rationales quickly fall apart. Silvertown’s easily the barmiest of the lot, yet still casts a spell over the easily-led. It’s claimed Silvertown will relieve congestion, but there’s enough evidence to show it will simply increase traffic right across south-east London. Will Hyland stand up to this issue?
Proponents of the Gallions Bridge claim it will regenerate the area, but will Thamesmead really be regenerated by warehousing and other space-hungry businesses that depend on road traffic, when London is crying out for more homes? Leaving Thamesmead to depend on roads has been a self-defeating act of cruelty by London’s politicians. Denise Hyland has the opportunity to seize the agenda here, to champion Thamesmead and her own ward of Abbey Wood, instead of meekly following the desires of Sir Robin Wales (who has little interest in the south side of the river).
A Labour politician who rolled over for Tory plans for the NHS or social security would rightly be hounded. Yet too many in Labour treat the Silvertown Tunnel, with the extra traffic and congestion it will bring, as if it’s inevitable, and go for a policy of appeasement rather than challenge.
Yet the failure of both the London Assembly and MPs to properly scrutinise this scheme gives the likes of Denise Hyland a chance to think big and set the agenda. Forget parochial dead-ends, forget borough borders. It’s time for councillors to step up and really interrogate these schemes – and engage with both sides of the debate. Why not start a big campaign for public transport?
Too many awkward questions have gone unanswered, many in the little-explored grey areas between “yes” and “no”. (For example, if the original Blackwall Tunnel isn’t fit for purpose, why is the Silvertown Tunnel adding to it rather than replacing it?)
We’re in an interesting time for London politics – the current mayor’s a lame duck, and the big parties will soon start to choose their replacements. Labour outsider Christian Wolmar – who knows more about transport than most of us will ever forget – has spoken out against the tunnel. His colleagues should heed his warnings.
So right now, even the most humble councillor has more influence than they think. It’s time for them to get to work and properly engage with this, rather than accepting others’ half-baked assumptions – because on the Silvertown Tunnel, the path of least resistance is a road to disaster.
1.30pm update: I’m indebted to Greenwich councillor Aidan Smith for tweeting some details of a scrutiny meeting councillors held last night with TfL and Southeastern. (I missed it because I wanted to finish writing this enormous post.)
The meeting was told that analysis of the effects of the Sivertown Tunnel on local roads still hasn’t been done – this should be enough to raise alarm bells.
TfL’s representative also didn’t know how much work had been done on a business case for extending the Overground to Thamesmead and Abbey Wood – surely if TfL took it seriously, its representative should have been briefed? Again, this should be ringing bells.
Both issues should be enough to make Greenwich councillors realise they should be kicking up a stink. Claiming they are just “stakeholders”, as they have done in the past, really isn’t good enough now.