Silvertown tunnel an ‘assault on health’ of locals, warn doctors

By Matthew Taylor

Doctors and healthcare workers have warned that plans for a new four-lane tunnel under the River Thames in east London represent an “assault on the health” of families in the surrounding area.

The group of 25 GPs, nurses and specialists – including experts in child health and respiratory disease – say the £2bn Silvertown tunnel project will funnel more traffic through some of the most deprived and polluted boroughs in the country – with a devastating impact on people’s health.

“We all view the proposal to build this tunnel as an assault on the health of east Londoners and on the climate,” the medics state in a letter. “The Silvertown tunnel as proposed will funnel traffic, including heavy freight vehicles into areas of deprivation which already suffer disproportionately from so many adverse social determinants of health.”

The medics, including local GPs and registrars from some of London’s leading hospitals, also say the huge road-building programme is incompatible with London’s efforts to tackle the climate emergency.

“It is now widely accepted that without drastic action the planet is hurtling towards catastrophic, irreversible climate change,” they write. “Given these threats to the health and wellbeing of our population we cannot see the rationale behind building another road crossing across the Thames. New roads just increase traffic and with it, pollution.”

The letter was written to the mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs, asking him to join other local political leaders in opposition to the scheme.

Biggs said that “on balance” he supported the scheme which he claimed – “with appropriate mitigation” – offered “the prospect of a solution to the terrible air quality and congestion at the Blackwall tunnel.”

He added: “Both Transport for London and Tower Hamlets council have taken great steps in the last few years to clean up our polluted air and remain committed to continue this through our wide ranging transport policies.’’

Plans for the tunnel, spearheaded by the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, have faced opposition from a growing list of MPs, councillors, environmentalists and residents in recent months. They argue it will increase pollution, drive up car use and increase emissions for years to come – all as the climate crisis accelerates.

The shadow climate change minister, Matthew Pennycook, whose Greenwich and Woolwich constituency would contain one end of the tunnel, called on Khan, a Labour mayor, to reverse the plan. Lyn Brown, the Labour MP for West Ham, where the other end of the tunnel would be, has also called for the project to be scrapped.

The rising cost of the scheme has come under scrutiny. In September, the Guardian revealed that the project could cost nearly £2bn over the next three decades if it goes ahead. The figure – which includes the construction, maintenance and operation of the tunnel as well as interest payments on the debt – is more than twice the original estimate.

In June, a report from the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, backed by some of the UK’s leading climate scientists, found that the development was incompatible with the Greater London Authority’s aim to become carbon-neutral by 2030.

Last month, the mother of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who a coroner ruled died from air pollution in 2013, called on the mayor to rethink his plans for a new tunnel warning it would drive up toxic air with a potentially devastating impact on young people’s health.

But Khan’s administration has repeatedly defended the scheme, saying it was essential to improve river crossings in east London that are “antiquated and worn out”.

A spokesperson for the mayor said anyone who had been caught in traffic due to a problem in the Blackwall tunnel would know “there is an urgent need for another river crossing in this part of London”.

They added: “The new tunnel will mean fewer idling vehicles and better local bus services, including double deck zero-emission buses which currently can’t operate across the river because of the restrictive size of the Blackwall tunnel.”

In their letter, the doctors say building new roads always leads to more cars and argue the £2bn cost of the Silvertown tunnel should instead be used to boost walking and cycling and subsidise public transport.

“Cycling and walking have huge direct and indirect benefits on health in that the exercise itself improves cardiovascular fitness and decreases obesity and increasing the proportion of active travel reduces pollution.”