London mayor Sadiq Khan has watered down plans to toll his proposed Silvertown Tunnel by offering residents on low incomes discounts on using the new road – putting at risk the traffic modelling the scheme depends on to work.
Transport for London plans to toll both the existing Blackwall Tunnel and the planned Silvertown Tunnel, which would run between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks, if the scheme gets UK Government go-ahead later this year. A planning inquiry into the proposal will end next month and has to report back to Transport Secretary Chris Grayling by July.
The tolls – projected to be around £3 in peak hours and £1 off-peak for cars – are in place because TfL recognises that a new tunnel and the surrounding neighbourhoods would, if it was free to use, be completely overwhelmed by new traffic. Although this strategy risks displacing traffic to Rotherhithe Tunnel or Tower Bridge the tolls are an attempt to stem that tide.
But now Khan has told TfL to offer 50% discounts to residents of the three boroughs most affected by the scheme – Greenwich, Newham and Tower Hamlets – who are eligible for cut-price bus fares. This covers drivers who are on income support, jobseekers’ allowance or employment and support allowance, and follows pressure from the political leaders of those boroughs to offer some sort of residents’ discount.
However, encouraging more drivers to use the tunnels could wreck the transport modelling on which all TfL’s predictions surrounding the scheme depend – including air quality. Officers from the boroughs affected by the scheme already dispute the reliability of TfL’s modelling.
The scheme, outlined in TfL’s latest submission to the Planning Inspectorate, also discriminates against residents who live outside the host boroughs, but are relatively close to the tunnel. Residents of Deptford’s Crossfields Estate or Blackheath’s Ryculf Square, both two miles from the tunnel, would not be eligible for discounted driving because they live in Lewisham borough; but residents in Mottingham’s Coldharbour Estate, six miles away, would be as they live in the southern tip of Greenwich’s area.
Indeed, in a separate submission, Hackney Council – whose border runs two-and-a-half miles from the Blackwall Tunnel – has said such a scheme could fail an equalities assessment.
This aspect also means that south of the river, some routes could see extra traffic heading for the tunnel while others wouldn’t.
TfL surveys show a significant proportion of Blackwall Tunnel users come from the Thamesmead area, and giving discounts to residents there on low incomes would add extra pressure on roads through Plumstead, Woolwich and Charlton, which already suffer badly from congestion and pollution.
Plans for road crossings at Thamesmead and Belvedere have been quietly shelved by Khan, although a sketchy proposal for a DLR extension from Gallions Reach has been brought forward.
The mayor has also told TfL to spend £2 million on free bus trips for residents of Greenwich, Newham and Tower Hamlets, although there is no detail on how this would work or be enforced. TfL is briefing local politicians that this would pay for over a million trips. To put this into context, 3.3 million journeys were made on route 108 in 2015/16.
Earlier this year, this website revealed Khan endorsed the scheme five weeks after his election as mayor, despite promising a “joined-up review” of the tunnel proposal.
Khan continues to talk up his credentials on air quality, even though TfL admits the tunnel will make air quality worse in some locations, particularly at the northern tunnel mouth in Silvertown, directly affecting new housing there.
Indeed, TfL is refusing to carry out air quality monitoring at locations around Hackney Wick and Victoria Park, despite requests from Hackney Council to do so if the tunnel goes ahead.
If you have a strong opinion on the tunnel proposals, there is one very last chance to have your say. A fourth and final session of planning hearings into the tunnel opens on 28 and 29 March, this time at the InterContinental Hotel at the O2.
Part of the session on 28 March will be open to the public to address the three-strong panel on the issues – the open floor hearing is due to begin from 5pm. If you want to take part, give the Silvertown Tunnel case team at the Planning Inspectorate a call on 0303 444 5000.
Full disclosure: I’m part of the No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign that is challenging the scheme, however, the opinions expressed in this story do not represent the views of the campaign. I’m also a registered objector to the tunnel as an individual.