Taxpayers deserve better than this lazy report – our response to the Transport Select Committee

Greenwich Park, 17 March 2015

The report was released on the day London issued its first official air pollution warnings.

A new report from MPs has backed the construction of the Silvertown Tunnel – but we think they’ve served taxpayers poorly by coming up with a lazy report full of outdated assumptions.

No to Silvertown Tunnel contributed to the Transport Select Committee’s inquiry into strategic river crossings, and our comments are referred to in the report.

While MPs have acknowledged serious local concerns about the Silvertown Tunnel, we’re disappointed that they seem to have come from a position that all road-building must be good for local communities.

Instead of asking “how do we build these roads”, it should have been asking “why are we building these roads?”

New roads = more traffic, same old jams

There’s an overwhelming body of evidence showing that new road-building leads to increased traffic – a body of evidence that has been ignored by the committee. To imagine you can build a road without generating new road traffic is fantasy – but it’s one that London’s policymakers have happily signed up to.

The Silvertown Tunnel will increase traffic levels in east and south-east London. TfL has admitted to a 20% increase, London’s deputy mayor for transport Isabel Dedring told the committee that traffic on local roads will double.

Despite this, the committee – whose report was released on the day when London’s mayor issued City Hall’s first air quality warnings – chose to ignore evidence that new roads generate more traffic, even falling for the old line about new roads reducing the number of idling vehicles that produce pollution.

Even one of the Silvertown Tunnel’s local supporters – Newham elected mayor Sir Robin Wales – admits the Silvertown Tunnel will do little to aid economic regeneration. Indeed, the intensive construction projects currently under way in the Royal Docks and on the Greenwich Peninsula suggest that regeneration is proceeding fine without it. Indeed the developments there have followed investment in public transport, such as the Jubilee Line, Docklands Light Railway and Crossrail.

The current plans for London’s river crossings are generated by frustration at not being able to cross the Thames. Yet the Blackwall Tunnel bottleneck is surrounded by other bottlenecks, both north and south of the Thames. Adding the Silvertown Tunnel will simply add pressure, particularly for southbound journeys on the A102, and will still leave the main north-south route relying on a 118-year-old crossing built for horses and carts.

The transport committee says the Silvertown Tunnel “must not be built in isolation”. Yet that is exactly what will happen, with TfL attempting to rush through the scheme at a far greater pace than other projects.

Damage to communities in east and south east London by expecting them to bear the weight of another “strategic crossing” will already have been done before a spade is dug on other projects. Each project must be judged and scrutinised on its merits, but in any case, the transport committee has admitted cost-benefit analysis underestimates the usage of new crossings – so what is its solution when crossings at Blackwall, Silvertown, Gallions Reach and Belvedere are all congested and local roads gridlocked?

Why only road crossings?

It’s also disappointing that the committee has failed to recognise the role of public transport in regenerating communities – ignoring calls for an Overground extension to Abbey Wood – particularly as it admits to having been given no hard evidence that road-building can do just that. It also ignores how promoting walking and cycling can boost local areas.

Indeed, one witness cited Dartford – which faces a similarly ill-conceived scheme to Silvertown in plans to add a 4th crossing on the M25 – as an example of how areas can be regenerated by road building. This ignores the fact that Dartford town centre has actually faced huge economic difficulties over the past two decades, exacerbated by the growth of out-of-town shopping centres served by new roads.

All this report does is parrot old ideas – the same outdated ideas which, if carried out in the 1970s, would have destroyed areas such as Brockley, Camden Town and Clapham as part of the Ringways scheme.

Ignoring London’s real needs

Different parts of the country will need different solutions to help them revive and regenerate local areas. Yet the MPs’ scrutiny of the London crossing proposals was painfully weak, compounded by their failure to invite any dissenters – such as the vastly experienced former GLC planner John Elliott – to give oral evidence.

The Silvertown Tunnel, along with other proposals out to the M25, must be looked at in the context of the wider London transport network – such as the Bakerloo line extension and Crossrail 2 plans – not just in terms of crossing the river. So it’s baffling to see the committee recommend setting up a joint-purpose company to build London’s river crossings.

This will simply make planning even more remote from local people, and ignores the role of public transport in reviving London’s communities, and presumably it will do little more than provide a highly-paid job for one of the current road-building lobby.

We believe any solution to crossing the Thames should be looked at in the context of cutting congestion levels across east and south-east London as a whole, keeping unnecessary traffic out of the capital and freeing up room for essential journeys. The current proposals simply fall to address this, and the committee failed to scrutinise this vital aspect.

Taxpayers deserve better scrutiny than that offered by a committee which gives the impression that it made its mind up in advance.

Further reading:
The oral evidence on the Silvertown Tunnel and other Thames crossings.
No to Silvertown Tunnel’s written evidence.
Written evidence from former GLC transport planner John Elliott.
Follow-up evidence from John Elliott.
Building bigger roads makes traffic worse –
Trunk roads and the generation of traffic – 1994 Department for Transport report.
MPs criticised after calling for more road crossings – MayorWatch.