Sadiq Khan

Over the past few weeks, the Labour Party has been eager to shine a spotlight on its new ‘green’ policies – including its grand plan to decarbonise Britain by 2030.

It’s encouraging. The more mainstream voices we have talking seriously about our climate emergency and pushing for a Green New Deal, the better.

However, Labour’s new-found dedication to environmentalism is completely undermined by its continued support for the polluting and downright dangerous Silvertown Tunnel.

In the coming days – to much less fanfare – Transport for London, overseen by the London Mayor, is also expected to the sign the contract on the £1bn Silvertown Tunnel contract, paving the way for its construction to begin.

The stated aim of the Silvertown Tunnel is to relieve the strain on the heavily congested Blackwall Tunnels, two arteries that cut under the Thames and facilitate more than 36 million journeys every year.

In theory, this sounds like a practical solution to a chronic problem. However, we know it won’t work. Rather than helping to reduce the flow of traffic, studies show that new roads simply attract more cars to an area – not less. It will only be a matter of time until this shiny, new tunnel is just as congested as the existing one. It will also worsen traffic in the surrounding roads.

This is bad news for Londoners’ health. According to TFL, the best-case scenario is that the tunnel keeps current levels of nitrogen oxide (NO2) stable, but disperses fumes more widely around the area.

While the Blackwall Tunnel is too small to capacitate HGVs, Silvertown will have a dedicated lane designed to fit these vehicles. The heavy polluters will be drawn onto major roads in the area, pumping toxic fumes into the air next to more than 40 schools and nurseries where 16,000 children play – both inside and out.

I’m afraid that simply isn’t good enough. We know that children living in areas with high levels of NO2 suffer from stunted lung capacity, existing conditions like asthma are exacerbated, and they are at greater risk of an early death.

One of these children was nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah from South London, who passed away in 2013 after suffering from severe asthma and seizures. She may become the first person to have her death officially linked to air pollution, after it emerged that her hospital admissions coincided with spikes in illegal levels of air pollution, primarily from diesel cars and vans.

It’s no wonder Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, has vocally declared her opposition to the Silvertown Tunnel scheme.

It didn’t have to be this way. While Sadiq Khan was committing public money to the Silvertown plan, he chose to scrap a proposed pedestrian and cycle bridge between Canary Wharf and Rotherhithe.

This alternative project would have improved active travel options in the same part of East London, and reduced the number of polluting vehicles on our city’s streets. With a price tag of £600 million – significantly less than the £1 billion expected for the tunnel – this bridge would not only have saved money, but saved lives.

In the midst of a self-declared “climate emergency”, I can’t fathom how the Mayor justified the decision to embark on a scheme that will boost pollution, rather than opting for a less costly option that would begin to ameliorate it.

Back in the 1950’s, American urbanist Lewis Mumford wrote that “adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.” It will briefly make you more comfortable, but will ultimately make the problem worse.

Sadiq Khan is loosening Londoners’ belt buckle a notch, rather than encouraging them to alter their destructive behaviour which created the problem in the first place.

The only way to snap people out of their complacency is to make them uncomfortable. We need to increase the cost of problematic behaviour such as driving, while making beneficial activities – like walking and cycling to work – genuinely viable options.

Lewis Mumford understood this seventy years ago. Sadly, we now know that the Labour Party still hasn’t got the message.

Header image credit: Ffzldn – Creative Commons