On Saturday 11 June, the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition held a Health Summit for a packed audience in Newham. rs21 members report.

March against the tunnel, June 2021. Photo: Steve Eason, flickr

For over a decade, Transport for London has been pushing for a new road tunnel under the Thames, linking Greenwich and Newham. The Coalition have been campaigning for the cancellation of the project, citing a wide variety of reasons, from the increases in congestion and air pollution, to the climate impacts of encouraging more car use.

Saturday’s meeting brought together experts and campaigners to raise awareness about the health impacts of air pollution as a result of the Tunnel. What it made clear was the widespread health disaster already occurring in this working class community, and the massive human cost of more road building in London.

The session was opened by Labour Mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz, expressing both her and Newham Council’s opposition to the tunnel. Simon Pirani, a campaigner from the Coalition, then spoke about the current state of the project, the possibility of its cancellation, and what happens if drilling begins.

This introduction was followed by a panel on the health impacts of the tunnel. This saw contributions from:

Anna Moore, a respiratory specialist registrar
Ian Mudway from the School of Public Health at Imperial College
John Whitelegg, Professor of Sustainable Transport at Liverpool John Moores University
Jenny Bates, from Friends of the Earth and a longstanding veteran of the anti-tunnel campaign.

This first panel was the most engaging, particularly in laying out the stakes for local working class communities. Moore drew on her wide medical experience in the community, talking about how she regularly sees patients, particularly children, with long-term respiratory conditions as a result of living near major roads and vents. She revealed the striking statistic that every car in London costs the health service £8,000 a year, in terms of the long term health impacts of pollution. Both Moore and Mudway reiterated that those costs had a wider impact than just the health services – working class, predominantly racialised people, are being exposed to pollution, leading to disease and in the worst cases, death.

Finally, a second panel discussed the political strategies necessary to oppose the tunnel. Contributions were made by

Caroline Russell, London Assembly member with the Green Party
Shaban Mohammed, a Newham Labour councillor
Richard Flowers from the Liberal Democrats
Victoria Rance a campaigner with the Coalition .

What became clear was the widespread cross-party opposition to the project, with the major support for it coming from Sadiq Khan and the Labour London Assembly members. Despite the councils on both sides of the Thames opposing the tunnel, and despite the widespread community opposition, the AMs block votes asking for reviews of the tunnel and the Mayor continues to back the project.

At the close of the meeting, all participants at the Health Summit agreed to send a letter to the Mayor, which will be handed in on Monday 13 June.

In summing up the progress of the campaign at the start of the summit, Simon Pirani noted that drilling has been expected to begin since the start of this year, but hasn’t started yet. It remains entirely possible to cancel the tunnel, particularly if community power is built against the undemocratic way in which TfL and the Mayor are conducting themselves. If drilling does begin, this would not mark the end of the campaign, though it would pose a significant challenge, forcing the campaign to focus on monitoring and preventing further road expansion.

Campaigners will need to continue building working class community power against air pollution in Newham and Greenwich. Across the meeting, speakers noted just how bad air pollution already was and how it was killing many members of the community. Not only is there a fight for proper community monitoring of air pollution levels, but a long-term struggle against road expansion and for free sustainable transport in the area.

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