No to Silvertown Tunnel: What we’ve learned after a summer of campaigning

Nikki Coates and Clare Griffiths at Royal Victoria Dock

Nikki Coates and Clare Griffiths show off children’s drawings of pollution at Royal Victoria Dock

We spent Saturday by the Royal Victoria Dock, taking our stall out for the fourth time this year at the Newham Waterfront Festival.

Technically speaking, we weren’t part of the festival and Newham Council weren’t happy about us being there. But we were invited by residents of the Britannia Village housing development, which is just a few hundred yards from the proposed Silvertown Tunnel’s northern entrance.

The festival uses land owned by the development, so Britannia Village’s management gave us a prime spot to catch people as they walked in and out of the event. We’re really grateful to Britannia Village for being our hosts for the day. And in the end, Newham’s security guards came and picked up badges and leaflets too.

We’re also really grateful to Lewisham Council for hosting us at Lewisham People’s Day, Greenwich Council for the Charlton Horn Fayre, and the Plumstead Make Merry team for having us at their event back in May.

Newham Waterfront Festival

Thanks to Britannia Village residents, we secured a prime spot alongside the Newham Waterfront Festival

It’s easy to sit in meeting rooms, or on the internet, and decide you know exactly how you need to fight a campaign. But actually, there’s nothing like getting out and talking to people. Here’s what we’ve picked up in between blowing up balloons, pointing at maps and handing out leaflets:

Many people still have no idea what the Silvertown Tunnel is. Despite two public consultations, and a PR campaign led by Greenwich and Newham councils to back it, many simply aren’t aware of the proposals. Even in Silvertown itself, it was instructive to watch people’s faces when they were told a four lane road tunnel would soon be emerging yards from their homes. Perhaps it’s because fewer people see local media these days, and there’s been a lack of coverage in the London media. But there’s still a lot of work to do to get the message out there. Have you told your neighbours about the Silvertown Tunnel?

People are worried about the Silvertown Tunnel. No amount of spin or bluster from Mayor Johnson on LBC phone-ins can disguise this. People are rightly concerned and angry about what’s being proposed. Of the hundreds of people we’ve spoken to, very few gave us a hard time. They know air pollution is a major issue in London, and the existence of plans like the Silvertown Tunnel show that too many of our politicians simply aren’t interested in doing anything about it.

Chris Taylor and Jill Austen talk to visitors at Royal Victoria Dock

Chris Taylor and Jill Austen talk to visitors at Royal Victoria Dock

Some people wrongly think it’s been scrapped. To an extent, coverage of the Silvertown Tunnel has been overshadowed by the furore over the Gallions Reach bridge proposals. Looking back at some of the media coverage of the last consultation, you’d easily think the Silvertown Tunnel had fallen off the agenda. It hasn’t – and it needs fighting.

“So, what would you like to see done instead?” Ah, yes. If you’re opposing something, surely you must have an alternative plan, right? Well, we’re not transport planners or engineers, but we’re worried that £750m spent on a hole in the ground that’ll just fill up with even more traffic, and make the air even worse, isn’t the wisest use of public funds. We simply think that public transport, pedestrian and cycling links across the Thames should be massively improved before any new road links are considered. That’s why we’ve begun a petition to get a London Overground extension to Abbey Wood onto the agenda – because that’s one of the schemes that will be needed if people are to have a real choice in how they get across the river.

Tunnel supporters get stuck in the most jams. Of the people we’ve spoken to who support the tunnel, most are professional drivers or are regular Blackwall Tunnel users. Which is fair enough – if something’s been the bane of your life for years, then you’d want to reach for the first “solution” in sight. But they become less keen when they’re told of current plans to toll Blackwall Tunnel as well as the Silvertown Tunnel – and most people accept the fact that building more roads simply generates more traffic. While these people may want to see a road crossing elsewhere, most do accept the the £750m Silvertown Tunnel is a poor idea for drivers too.

South of the river: We also spoke to locals at Charlton's Horn Fayre

South of the river: We also spoke to locals at Charlton’s Horn Fayre

“But if you build more roads and traffic starts moving, pollution levels will drop.” An old chestnut that’s continually pushed by the politicians who are trying to force the tunnel onto east and south-east London. Studies show that if you increase capacity on the roads, it will be filled by more traffic – and Mayor Johnson has admitted this will be the case with Silvertown. Just think of all the things you could spend £750m on – you wouldn’t want to spend it on a new traffic jam under the Thames.

Most importantly, though, we’ve found the public are ahead of the politicians on this. People know the damage caused by pollution and congestion because they suffer it themselves. And when they’re given the real story about the Silvertown Tunnel – and told how and why it’ll only exacerbate congestion, they’re against it.

When Greenwich’s Labour councillors were told to support Silvertown back in 2012, they were told that “environmental groups are rehearsing previous arguments”. We can’t speak for the environmental groups, but the only people we’ve seen rehearsing previous arguments are the politicians.

So we’ve come away from the summer energised and ready to face down these arguments. But as a committee we can only do so much.

If you can help us with air or noise pollution studies, or can donate money to help fund our work, we’d love to hear from you – contact