Greenwich Council is considering setting up its own cycle hire schemes, after once again ruling out paying for TfL’s Santander Cycles to reach the borough.
The council has rejected a new call to work on an expansion of the London Cycle Hire network, following a petition handed to the council last month by Conservative councillor Matt Clare.
While the Labour administration does not object to the idea, it has baulked at the idea of paying the estimated £2 million cost of bringing the scheme south east.
“Boris bikes” have been a common sight in Greenwich town centre since the scheme was extended to the Isle of Dogs, with a cycle dock close to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel at Island Gardens. However, coverage is poor south of the river, with just a single hire dock east of Tower Bridge.
An electric bike hire scheme is due to launch in east Greenwich and Greenwich town centre on 8 April as part of the City Hall-funded Low Emissions Neighbourhood (LEN) scheme. The 16-bike scheme will “encourage residents of the LEN to trial more sustainable alternatives to the private motor vehicle”.
Electric bikes would certainly work on the hilly terrain around Greenwich, Blackheath and Charlton; although plans to set up a hire scheme in the borough of Haringey – which features some punishing inclines around Highgate and Muswell Hill – have been dropped after TfL said they were poor value for money.
There are also plans being developed to make folding Brompton bicycles available at Greenwich station. Bromptons are already available at a handful of locations in London including Peckham Rye station, while there used to be a scheme at the University of Greenwich.
The report says: “Development work on the implementation of a Brompton Bike Dock is in progress. If the scheme were to progress 8 Brompton Bikes would be available at Greenwich Station. Residents would be able to hire these for just £2.50 per day with no initial sign up fee. By comparison the Santander Cycle Hire scheme costs £2 to access per day, the first 30 minutes is free and then £2 for every 30 minutes.
“Based on the outcome of these trials proposals may be developed for wider expansion of these or similar schemes to suitable locations in the Borough.”
“In the longer term, a variety of public bike sharing models are being evaluated. This includes traditional dock based models as well as ‘floating’ models that do not require substantial infrastructure to operate.”
Despite looking at different models, the report says Greenwich would still be interested in having the London Cycle Hire scheme – so long as it didn’t have to pay for it. “Officers will continue to work with TfL to ensure that TfL is aware that the Council would welcome an extension of the Mayor’s cycle hire scheme into the Royal Borough and to explore the opportunity to fund any expansion at no cost to the Council.”
With TfL facing steep financial cuts, any expansion of the loss-making scheme (it requires a £10m subsidy each year) would have to come from councils or developers, meaning its coverage of London is likely to remain somewhat lopsided. The most recent boost to the network came last year when bikes were made available in the Olympic Park, which is controlled by a City Hall agency.
While Greenwich has ruled out contributing to an expansion, Southwark Council said three years ago it would consider paying for the scheme to be extended to Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Camberwell and Peckham, which would pave the way for a further expansion east.
But little has been heard since, and when asked last year, Sadiq Khan would only say that TfL was talking to “council planners and land developers in Rotherhithe” about expansion there.
Greenwich borough is all set to get a new weekly newspaper after Greenwich Council agreed to sign an advertising deal with the publisher of the weekly Southwark News.
Councils must, by law, publish certain public notices – such as for planning and highways matters – in at least one local newspaper.
Until 2016, Greenwich had used this as a pretext for publishing its own weekly paper, Greenwich Time. It closed last summer after an out-of-court settlement following a government crackdown on “council Pravdas”.
Since then, Greenwich has been publishing some of its notices in the Penge-based Mercury newspaper, a free offshoot of the South London Press series; while placing its vanity stuff… sorry, vital public information in a dull fortnightly called Greenwich Info.
But now Greenwich, after a lengthy tender process, has opted to take its ad money to a new entrant to the area, Southwark Newspaper Ltd. The contract could be worth up to £1.2m over three years. (For its part, the council claims the equivalent cost of Greenwich Time would only be £738,000, but this doesn’t take into account the cost of in-house advertising, while local organisations were strongly encouraged to place ads in GT rather than other publications.)
The firm is best known for Southwark News, the only independent paid-for newspaper in the capital, which contains Southwark Council’s public notices. It’s a very good paper and has an excellent reputation. There’s also a free spin-off, Southwark Weekender, which focuses on events in the borough.
It also publishes Lambeth Weekender, which features Lambeth Council’s notices as well as a rotating opinion column between the three parties represented at the town hall – Labour, the Conservatives and the Greens.
Greenwich’s choice to give the contract to Southwark Newspaper Ltd was ratified by a scrutiny panel last week after the borough’s Conservatives “called in” the decision. (I asked the Tories why, but they never got back to me. You’ll have to ask them yourself.)
Is the Greenwich Weekender coming?
Whether this means we’re in line for Greenwich Weekender isn’t clear. Hopefully, the council will keep its mitts off. Whether it has “Royal” in the title might be a clue. Greenwich wants its ads “published… in the context of engaging local editorial content which helps to positively inform local residents about the measures that their neighbours and local service providers are undertaking to make the borough a great place to live, work, learn and visit”. No moaning about dirty streets or pollution or Plumstead High Street falling to bits, y’hear? LOOK AT THE TALL SHIPS!
In practice, sticking council ads in a pan-south London “what’s on”-style publication with a couple of pages of council editorial will tick that box nicely. This is pretty much how Lambeth Weekender started.
Since the council’s latest Big Idea is creating a “cultural quarter” in Berkeley Homes’s Royal Arsenal development in Woolwich, this could actually work well for all sides. We get an interesting local weekly, the council gets its ads and some puff pieces, a south London business gets money and can employ more people.
Don’t expect to get a copy through your letterbox, though – no bidder was willing to fulfil the council’s demand that 95% of households got a paper, which was the alleged distribution of Greenwich Time. Now fewer than one in three households will get a paper, although 8,500 will be made available at 80 pick-up points across the borough. Hopefully this will include dump bins in public places rather than the usual council network.
Fingers crossed that the Southwark team can pull it off. While money from public notices represents a subsidy that can be open to abuse (and has been for many, many years), it is good to see the cash going to a reputable independent publisher, based reasonably near the borough, rather than the media groups that have steadily starved the existing local titles. So good luck to them.
There is one fly in the ointment – since Greenwich made its initial decision, Lambeth has decided to switch its public notice contract away from Lambeth Weekender and back to the South London Press, swallowing concerns about ads for sexual services in the SLP. Whether that loss of income upsets the plan remains to be seen.
The distant Mercury
This is bad news for the Mercury, once the area’s main local paper, but long reduced to being a free offshoot of the South London Press. Despite the efforts of the paper’s one remaining reporter/editor, resources have been slashed to the bone and beyond in recent years.
The paper was recently sold to its management and was given a revamp, with the council ad contract seen as a lifeline.
Indeed, a second bidder had been rejected by the council after due diligence found it presented an “unacceptable risk to the council”.
It is not known who the second bidder was. It may not even have been the Mercury/SLP.
An amateurish effort at a local paper – Greenwich Gazette – briefly appeared and then disappeared during the council tender process (but not before lifting copy from this website about Blackheath fireworks). The Gazette did not carry any details of any publisher, but it appears to have been linked to a design and PR business based in west Greenwich for which only limited financial information is available.
Hopefully not having to worry about council ad money will make the Mercury a bit more fearless. Even if few people ever see a copy because the distribution is terrible.
The stumbling Shopper – and a BBC bailout
Tough times continue at the News Shopper too, which is now produced from Sutton and is effectively the same newspaper as the South London Guardian/Surrey Comet series, making it some kind of quasi-regional freesheet. Recent editions available in Greenwich have featured news from Biggin Hill, Crayford and even Enfield.
Cutbacks have also led to cock-ups like this – the Surrey Comet (which covers Kingston) effectively getting a News Shopper letters page.
Publisher Newsquest has been bleeding its titles dry across the UK – recently slashing jobs at a production hub in south Wales after collecting £340,000 in Welsh government subsidies.
There’s more bailout money for the asset-strippers on offer from the BBC, and we’ll soon see the results of that in south-east London. The Beeb is setting up a Local Democracy Reporters Scheme, which will see reporters based at local news organisations start to cover local council meetings, like the old days. Except the BBC will be funding them, and the results will be available to the news barons who cut council coverage in the first place, like Newsquest.
One reporter will cover Greenwich, Bexley and Bromley; another has the enormous task of covering Lewisham, Southwark and Lambeth. I can’t see it working very well. If you’ve read this far and you’re interested, here’s why the Local Democracy Reporter Scheme, as it stands, is a terrible idea.
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.
Former Eltham North councillor Dermot Poston, who was first elected to Woolwich Town Hall in 1968, has died, his colleague Spencer Drury announced on Friday.
A former teacher at Haberdasher’s Askes Hatcham Boys’ School in New Cross, Poston was a stalwart of the local Conservatives, and clocked up 40 years’ service in the town hall.
His first win – in the former Horn Park ward – came in highly unusual circumstances, when the Conservatives won a landslide on Greenwich Council.
Most of London’s boroughs went Tory that night, but it wasn’t to last and he lost his seat – and the Tories lost power, never to return, at the 1971 poll.
He returned again in New Eltham in 1974, serving until 1990, before returning in a by-election at Eltham Park in 1993. He stayed on until 2014 as that seat was incorporated into Eltham North.
One of the things that looking at council meetings can do is to break your political prejudices; you can find yourself looking forward to hearing contributions by representatives whose national parties you simply can’t abide.
So it was for me with Dermot Poston, who was as likely to take the mickey out of himself as he was to lambast the council’s policies. On one occasion he had the council chamber in stitches by recalling his days as a roller-skater – something you could never imagine this dignified gentleman doing. In a council chamber dominated by spite and petty digs, Poston would tackle opponents hard, but fairly.
He was an astute critic of former leader Chris Roberts and, as an opposition councillor, was able to speak freely on an increasingly politicised planning board – coming out against the Ikea development in Greenwich, a position which saw him accused of “playing to the gallery” by Roberts; even though most of his Eltham constituents would probably back it.
A glance at 1968’s clippings from the South East London Mercury (as was) and the long-defunct Kentish Independent show little of Poston – he was one of a number of people no doubt slightly surprised to find themselves on the council and running it.
But there are lots to show what a different place Greenwich borough was at that point in time – Thamesmead’s first residents were just moving in, the riverside industries were still clinging on, and the A102 was under construction. Indeed, Greenwich borough itself had only just been created out of the old metropolitan boroughs.
Around the time of his retirement, I had thought about contacting him for an interview, to find out what it was like to have been that rarest of creatures – a Tory who could remember being on the winning side in Greenwich – and his thoughts on how politics, his party, and the role of being a councillor had changed over the years. I never got around to doing it, which is something I regret.
In Greenwich, watching council meetings can be as depressing as it can be enlightening – while you will sometimes learn new things about the area you live in, you are just as likely to come away feeling cheapened having been exposed to a intensive dose of arrogance, ignorance and rudeness.
In the time I watched him on the council, you never got that with Dermot Poston, who treated the sometimes dull, sometimes bitter business of the town hall with dignity and wit. Hopefully there will be some way of commemorating his contribution – even if it is just councillors treating each other – and the public who pay their allowances – with a little more respect. He’ll be much missed in local public life, and my condolences go to his family, friends and colleagues.
Clippings above from the South East London Mercury (top and bottom) and Kentish Independent (centre) from May 1968, courtesy of Greenwich Heritage Centre.
You probably read a couple of weeks ago about the new development planned for North Greenwich station – 30-storey glass towers, a “winter garden”, 800 flats and a world-famous architect in Santiago Calatrava.
It’ll certainly be an impressive sight and will probably replace the Dome as the peninsula’s signature building – in fact, if you look at the peninsula from Charlton, the O2 is already disappearing behind Knight Dragon’s fast rising towers.
Peninsula Place will replace the current bus station at North Greenwich – a darling of 1990s architecture books but no longer fit for purpose; a scene of fights, bus jams and frustration.
What you probably didn’t see reported is that the 20th Century Society, rather bravely, wants to see the Norman Foster-designed terminus listed.
“We would deeply regret the loss of two recent and outstanding examples of late-20th-century infrastructure buildings,” the society’s conservation adviser Tess Pinto told design website Dezeen.
Clearly our Tess hasn’t faced any sharp digs in the ribs while trying to squeeze onto a 486. It is a lovely building, if useless for what the area has become. Perhaps it could be dismantled and re-erected somewhere else? It is the third major bit of 1990s infrastructure on the peninsula to face destruction in the past couple of years after the ‘eco’-Sainsbury’s (which the 20th Century Society also fought to save) and the soon-to-be-ripped-out busway.
Indeed, the Dome’s Blue Peter time capsule almost came a cropper recently.
No matter how impressive 30-storey glass towers will be, it’s absurd to say they “unlock the potential” of the peninsula – very little has been done since the Jubilee Line opened in 1999, and the only plans focus on a road tunnel aimed at long-distance commuters passing through. But that’s what Sadiq Khan found himself saying in interviews promoting Peninsula Place. (He also managed to mistakenly claim Crossrail was coming to the peninsula, a reminder that he needs better transport advisers, fast.)
TfL has admitted the Jubilee Line faces capacity problems into the 2030s – despite another major upgrade planned soon – while plans show the bus station as having room for 17, rather than 15 buses, and planned Silvertown Tunnel services may gobble up those spaces. Add in 15,000 new homes, and those fights for 422s aren’t going to go away any day soon.
I’ve written about this for CityMetric, and you should go there now and read why North Greenwich desperately needs a bridge to Canary Wharf to ease some of the pressure.
Neither City Hall, Greenwich Council nor Knight Dragon seem willing to countenance the thought that Greenwich Peninsula needs more than just the Jubilee Line.
So Peninsula Place is an uncomfortable reminder that if you live in east Greenwich, Charlton or Blackheath – never mind Eltham or Woolwich – then if you’re heading to central London, North Greenwich will not be meant for you for much longer.
It’s mad when you think about it from a transport planning point of view – North Greenwich has a lot of regular users who live nowhere near it, but use it every day because it is in zone 2 and results in cheaper fares than using their local stations. And this situation will get worse as the TfL fare freeze goes on while Southeastern’s continue to rise.
An in time, North Greenwich station will have more people in its catchment area, and will become increasingly difficult to access by bus for the rest of us as time goes on. Best to get used to this now (or get a bike).
Unfortunately, this means the train services through places like Charlton, Blackheath and Eltham will need improving – but this seems unlikely too.
So while the glass towers will certainly look very nice, unless there’s a serious rethink, short-term and parochial thinking looks set to curse the peninsula – and the rest of us who live nearby – for years to come.
Matthew Norwell, Greenwich’s director of community services, left before Christmas “by mutual agreement”, the council has confirmed.
Councillors were frustrated at the failure of his department to respond to mounting complaints about filthy streets, with some streets still covered in autumn leaves in January.
Mr Norwell, who earned £140,000 a year, also resigned his directorships at two council companies – GS Plus and Greenwich Service Solutions – on 13 December.
A council spokesperson told 853: “Matthew Norwell left the Council by mutual agreement before Christmas. We would like to wish him well with his future endeavours.”Local councillors had faced the brunt of anger from residents at the deteriorating state of their streets, particularly in Plumstead and Charlton, with the service sharply criticised at a scrutiny meeting in November.
There is no recording of this meeting available, but minutes state: “There was a general perception amongst the Panel that some areas of the borough received an inferior street cleansing service in comparison to others.
“Those Members of the Panel who represented wards in the Woolwich and Plumstead areas had received numerous complaints from residents and were finding it increasingly difficult to defend the perceived lack of street cleansing in these areas.”
The minutes also record Greenwich environment cabinet member Jackie Smith saying “a discussion needed to be had” about the level of resources put into the service, with just £29 per resident spent on keeping the borough clean – much less than neighbouring Lewisham or Southwark.
However, despite the historic underfunding of the service and the failure of her department, Smith decided to blame the Conservative Party when questioned at a council meeting in December.
In Plumstead, Smith insisted Plumstead High Street – the focus of many residents’ complaints – had been given a “deep clean” by council staff during the summer, even though it appears that the clean failed to have any effect.
And in Charlton, residents complained of streets covered in leaves for months on end, with sweeping – when it was carried out – seemingly carried out on an arbitrary basis, and often half-completed.
While government cutbacks are unhelpful, the council’s previous underfunding of the service left it vulnerable to failings.
The council has stepped up its act by signing up to a customised version of the FixMyStreet app, which works across many UK authorities.
But while FixMyStreet allows the council to see where there are litter and flytipping hotspots, its response to them still seems to be influenced by lobbying rather than data, with areas of Charlton being ignored despite the introduction of a “taskforce” to fix street issues.
Town hall insiders say Norwell’s department had struggled after taking on responsibility for council housing in a reorganisation designed to slim down the number of senior management posts.
While Greenwich Council has traditionally resisted suggestions that it spin off its housing stock into an arms-length company, preferring to keep direct control and hold rents down, critics say this has left much of the borough’s council housing stock in a poor state.
Norwell’s successor will take charge of a department with a huge remit – from licensing and trading standards to parks, sport and leisure and the council’s mortuary.
Whoever takes over will need to deal with the legacies of past underfunding as well as government cuts. For the sake of the whole borough – because living in an area that looks like a dump has an effect on us all, frankly – hopefully they will have the skills to turn it around.
London mayor Sadiq Khan agreed to continue with Boris Johnson’s plans to build the controversial Silvertown Tunnel within weeks of taking office, despite promising a “proper joined-up review” into the project while standing for election.
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Khan backed the tunnel after receiving a briefing from Transport for London representatives on 14 June, just five weeks after he took office.
Officials were then charged with making the proposals more palatable to the public, from offering free bus services and residents’ discounts to adding cycle racks to existing buses.
The £1 billion project – which would provide a new toll road from the Royal Docks to feed into the A102 at Greenwich Peninsula, and would toll the Blackwall Tunnel – is currently going through the planning process, with a series of public hearings taking place until April. Later this year, planning inspectors will recommend to the government whether to approve or refuse the scheme.
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.
The joined-up review that didn’t happen
Khan had pledged “a proper joined up review, looking at river crossings and improved public transport connections east of Tower Bridge, but in a strategic fashion, not piecemeal like the current mayor”, when interviewed about the project by Transport Network in April 2016, ahead of May’s election.
By 27 May, this had become a commitment to “review the merits” of the scheme.
But a TfL briefing note says Khan agreed to its proposals less than three weeks later, and the review would merely be about “improvements”.
Khan also appears to have quietly dropped plans for further road crossings at Gallions Reach and Belvedere. The Gallions crossing has been a long-cherished aim for London’s Labour councils, and was a supposed condition for Greenwich’s backing of the Silvertown scheme. Neither project appears in TfL’s latest business plan, released last month.
While politicians in Greenwich and Tower Hamlets are going through the motions in still supporting the scheme, the project has come under sustained attack from their council officers at planning hearings, which resume today.
The documents released by City Hall
The Greater London Authority was asked for the terms of reference of Khan’s review, as well as the advice sent to Khan and deputy mayor Val Shawcross, their responses, as well as details of who was consulted.
There is no record of anybody outside the GLA or TfL being consulted by the mayor’s office, despite the widespread concern about the proposals from neighbouring councils.
The GLA sent a Powerpoint presentation from TfL to the mayor from June, when he agreed to back the scheme; as well as a later presentation outlining options to make the scheme more palatable. There is also a note from GLA head of transport Tim Steer to Shawcross outlining the problems with residents’ discounts.
Asked for the terms of reference, the GLA said:
“In requesting that TfL review the merits of the Silvertown Tunnel scheme, the Mayor asked that particular consideration be paid to the following:
- a clear commitment to delivering much-needed cross river public transport links;
- environmental assurances, both in terms of how it is constructed and once operational;
- and benefits for pedestrians and cyclists, linking to the wider opportunities for new river crossings, such as the proposed Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf crossing.”
However, there is no sign that any of TfL’s assertions about the scheme – apart from on tolling – were scrutinised in any way by the mayor or his deputy.
This includes its claim that “no additional traffic will be generated”, which has been disputed by councils at the planning process.
A question of ‘further benefits’
In October, Khan confirmed he was backing the scheme but making it “greener and more public transport-focused, and exploring further benefits for residents who use the tunnel”.
“Further benefits for residents who use the tunnel” – which campaigners fear mean concessions for local residents who drive through the tunnel – have the potential to wreck TfL’s traffic modelling by generating even more new trips and causing more congestion.
Khan’s main idea to “green” the tunnel was to create a special bus service for cyclists – reminiscent of a short-lived service offered when the Dartford Tunnel first opened in 1963 (pictured above, below is one of the vehicles in a yard in Stratford in 1999).
He also re-announced a series of bus services already planned for the tunnel, as well as reiterating his support for a pedestrian and cycle bridge between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf.
The mayor also re-announced past proposals for a ferry between North Greenwich and Canary Wharf and an Overground extension from Barking Riverside to Thamesmead. There was one surprising addition – a pledge to investigate a DLR extension from Gallions Reach to Thamesmead, the first time this idea has surfaced without being attached to a new road.
Other plans suggested by TfL but not taken forward by Khan included free travel on the Emirates Air Line between 7am and 9am on weekdays, to be paid for by increasing “leisure fares” on the cable car.
Rocky reception at planning hearings
Planning hearings into the scheme began in October and resume today at the Excel centre in the Royal Docks. A three-strong panel is hearing arguments from TfL and interested parties, mainly boroughs and local landowners.
What has been striking so far has been the tough reception TfL’s plans got from all boroughs. None of them are happy with TfL’s traffic modelling. This is a problem for TfL, because all its other forecasts, from the economy to pollution, derive from how much traffic it thinks will use the tunnel.
Most strikingly, Greenwich Council’s senior transport planner, Kim Smith, told hearings last month that the council was worried the “local network would suffer” as a result of the tunnel’s construction – something campaigners have been warning about for four years, and that appears in a report the council buried nearly five years ago.
Her opposite number at Newham, Murray Woodburn, pointed out that TfL’s record in assessing demand for river crossings was “not exactly fantastic”, pointing out that the Woolwich Arsenal DLR extension proved to be twice as busy as predicted.
“We as host boroughs have no option other than to treat the highway impacts… with very little confidence,” he told the hearing.
Much of this depends on the calculations that go into the modelling itself – the boroughs challenged the “value of time” used in the forecasts, saying that economic conditions in this part of London are vastly different from the rest of the country.
But the tolling also plays a part – so we learned that TfL has only modelled what would happen if tolls increased by 20%, which would only take the maximum charge for a car up to £3.60.
TfL has also admitted it could reduce charges if the tunnel was less busy than forecast – jeopardising traffic levels on other roads and possibly increasing pollution.
You can see a Storify summary of one of December’s hearings here.
Greenwich councillors say one thing, officers say another
But while Murray Woodburn’s boss, Newham elected mayor Sir Robin Wales, has “politically repositioned the council’s stance” on the tunnel, Kim Smith’s employers at Greenwich are still singing the same old songs written by former leader Chris Roberts.
Smith told the planning hearing the council only ever supported “a package of crossings” (ie, including the now-dropped Gallions crossing), which is consistent with the council’s submissions to earlier consultations on the scheme.
But a few days later she was contradicted by current transport cabinet member Sizwe James, who has been lumbered with the job of defending the council’s stance, at a scrutiny panel meeting. These are where backbench councillors interrogate (or at least gently probe) senior councillors and officers on how things are going.
Much of the Regeneration, Transport and Culture scrutiny meeting was about Greenwich’s policies on air pollution – which falls under the remit of deputy leader Danny Thorpe’s regeneration portfolio. Thorpe enlisted TfL’s David Rowe – a genial chap who’s in charge of much of the politics and practicalities around the proposal – to answer questions from councillors on the Silvertown Tunnel and air pollution.
This was largely a waste of time, as everything depends on the traffic modelling, which council officials are unhappy about. But nobody told the councillors that the modelling was hotly disputed, and Rowe’s presence presumably just gave Thorpe someone to hide behind. (Shaky video of almost the whole meeting can be found here.)
Too bright to come out with that crap
Even worse, by the time the meeting had got around to transport questions – where the meat of the Silvertown scheme could be dissected – almost everybody had cleared off, including Thorpe and Rowe, leaving James – who has only recently taken over transport from Thorpe – isolated.
James told the panel that the council supported the tunnel’s construction in isolation.
“We have been consistently supportive of a package of crossings… but that is not the only reason we’re supporting Silvertown, it’s also about resilience and supporting growth,” he told the meeting on 13 December.
But James then managed to contradict himself on that point, as well as Smith’s comments to the planning hearing.
Asked by former deputy leader John Fahy if it concerned him that the tunnel would attract more traffic than anticipated now the Gallions and Belvedere schemes have been canned, James replied: “Of course it does, there’ll be more pressure at one point, that’s why we support a package of crossings.”
Either the council supports the Silvertown Tunnel on its own, or it supports more than one crossing, surely?
After an awkward silence, Greenwich’s assistant director of transport, Tim Jackson, intervened to point out that “if TfL were here they would say” that tolling would control traffic levels.
But TfL had gone home – and Jackson’s colleagues have been taking TfL to task on the question of tolling at the planning hearings, something he didn’t tell the panel.
So Greenwich councillors were denied the chance to properly scrutinise the council’s line on the scheme, and learned nothing about how the council is approaching what is a complex set of public hearings on the scheme.
Then James was taken to task by Greenwich West councillor Mehboob Khan, who, in short, told him he was too bright to come out with that crap.
“Southwark have formally objected on the basis of increased traffic going through the west of our borough through Lewisham and Southwark towards Rotherhithe [Tunnel]. That’s the council’s official position,” he said.
“Lewisham have objected. Hackney have objected. Tower Hamlets objected [it did in an earlier consultation]. Greenwich didn’t. Someone’s right here, and somebody’s wrong here. Their objections aren’t, in principle, to Silvertown – it’s about the mitigation of the problems caused by it not being dealt with by TfL.
“You meet TfL on a regular basis – you’re new to this portfolio this year. And perhaps you don’t want to be tainted by past portfolio-holders’ stances.” At this point, John Fahy pretended to cuff Khan around the ear.
“Can you look at this afresh and and see why other boroughs have taken a completely polarised position to Greenwich? And maybe come forward with something more in line with what an intelligent, articulate cabinet member like yourself would come forward with?”
James responded: “This is not my personal position, this is the position of the Labour Group.” [Greenwich Labour councillors backed the scheme in 2012.]
Khan came back: “We’re not interested in Labour Group here. This forms part of the council’s scrutiny function. That political view is taken elsewhere.”
James agreed he would look again at the council’s position. But frankly, the damage has already been done by his predecessors, who mistook criticism of the council’s stance for politically-motivated attacks. It’s now left Greenwich in an embarrassing position of backing a scheme it knows will damage the borough.
Khan can still stop it – but do local politicians care enough?
Before Christmas, the West Ham constituency Labour party passed a motion against the scheme, and there are rumours of new rumblings against the Silvertown Tunnel south of the river too. But it’s too late to take their complaints to council leaders – they’ve already made their minds up.
If they really wanted to stop the scheme, they would be taking their concerns straight to Sadiq Khan and Val Shawcross, which would mean overcoming their reluctance to embarrass the Labour mayor and his transport deputy.
Even at this late stage, the tunnel certainly isn’t a done deal – especially with the fierce criticism it’s getting from the boroughs.
Just as with another dodgy scheme inherited from Boris Johnson, the Garden Bridge, many millions of pounds have already been spent on getting the Silvertown Tunnel through planning – and this planning inquiry itself is taking up huge amounts of TfL’s time when the organisation is having its budgets cut.
But now we know how slapdash Khan’s “review” was, will any of his friends have the courage to have a quiet word in his ear?