Blackwall Tunnel charge: Will the toll be permanent once the Silvertown Tunnel opens?
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Tolls due to be introduced to two east London tunnels to manage traffic levels may not be legally binding for future mayors, with concerns raised that the impact of the £2.2 billion Silvertown Tunnel will worsen as a result.
East London’s Blackwall Tunnel, which is currently free to use, is due to be tolled in 2025, once the nearby Silvertown Tunnel is completed. Transport for London (TfL) and the mayor, Sadiq Khan, say this is necessary to mitigate the impacts of the new tunnel, which will also be tolled, and ensure local traffic levels do not increase.
The tolls are seen as key to keeping driver numbers using the tunnels in check, with TfL’s own modelling suggesting a 30% hike on the opening of the Silvertown Tunnel if they are not introduced.
Campaigners have queried whether TfL and future mayors are obliged by the Silvertown Tunnel’s development consent order (DCO) to keep the tolls, and if not, what this will mean for traffic levels and air pollution in east London.
In theory, a future mayor could indeed reverse the tolls, but there are a number of conditions they would have to meet. Here, we look at the details.
What is included in the DCO?
Part five of The Silvertown Tunnel Order 2018 relates specifically to the charging policy due to be introduced as part of the project.
The DCO states TfL “may revise the charging policy”, though only after it has consulted with appropriate organisations and the members of STIG (Silvertown Tunnel Implementation Group), and submitted the revised policy to the mayor for approval.
It adds that any revised charging policy proposed by TfL “will only have effect if it is approved by the mayor of London, who may approve it without modifications”.
If the mayor does wish to make any “material modifications”, they must again consult before implementing the changes.
Beyond the specific charging policy document, the DCO includes a host of statutory commitments TfL and the mayor must meet related to issues relating from air pollution to noise. It is the need to comply with these concerns which Mr Khan and TfL say will prevent future mayors having free reign to amend or cancel the tolls.
What has legal advice on the DCO said?
Back in 2021, the Stop The Silvertown Tunnel Coalition sought legal advice as to whether the DCO means any future mayors would be legally tied to maintaining the tolls on the Blackwall Tunnel and Silvertown Tunnel.
In her findings, Rea Murray, who at the time practised at 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, wrote that “TfL and the mayor will retain a wide discretion” with regards to mitigation of the project’s impacts, and that “the strategy can be altered”, with “no guarantee as to what that mitigation measure or measures may be”.
Greenwich Council, one of the two Labour-run local authorities to be most-impacted by the Silvertown Tunnel, also sought legal advice, received in February 2022.
In it, Stephen Whale of Landmark Chambers wrote: “True it is that TfL may revise the charging policy only after certain steps have been taken (which include consulting the STIG members in relation to proposed changes, having regard to any consultation responses and obtaining the mayor of London’s approval), but one sees that that the charging policy during a mayoralty is not necessarily fixed. For all I know, it may be unlikely that TfL would scrap or even reduce user charges during the present mayoralty. But the DCO does not strictly preclude this.”
Dominic Leggett, from the Stop the Silvertown Coalition, said: “The mayor has repeatedly claimed - to us, and to the London Assembly - that it is certain that there will be a toll on the Blackwall Tunnel that will remove the excess cross-river traffic, congestion, and pollution, that will be generated by his Silvertown Tunnel, for the entire lifetime of the project - and on this basis he’s refused to tell us how much pollution and carbon emissions increase without that toll.
“In fact, the DCO for Silvertown makes it clear that whoever is mayor at the time has the power to decide whether there’s a toll on Blackwall or not. Legal advice confirms this. So the mayor is opening a massive new project that substantially increases traffic and pollution - and then just hoping.that the next mayor will take the politically difficult step of tolling an existing crossing just to clean up the mess he has created, and pay off the huge debt he has now saddled TfL with.
“He now needs to come clean about the true environmental and financial risks and costs of his reckless decision to green-light this project, against all expert advice.”
What have London Assembly Members said about the tolls?
Concerns about the permanence of the road user charges planned for the Blackwall Tunnel and Silvertown Tunnel have been raised on numerous occasions in the London Assembly.
Liberal Democrat Assembly Member (AM) Caroline Pidgeon and Green AM Siân Berry in June 2022 had a motion passed, calling on TfL to provide further details regarding health, climate and congestion impacts of there being no tolls for either tunnel.
In response, Labour AM Dr Onkar Sahota, who at the time was chair of the London Assembly, wrote that while there is some flexibility in the DCO, “a future mayor wishing to make changes to the Silvertown charging policy would be required to demonstrate that these changes were consistent with the congestion reduction and resiliency objectives that the scheme is designed to achieve and would not result in a breach of the environmental requirements set out in the DCO, in particular for air quality and noise”.
“For this to be the case, it is likely that substantial wider mitigation measures would need to be implemented alongside the change in user charge. In the improbable scenario that a future mayor attempted to unilaterally push through a change to the charging policy that was in apparent contradiction to the DCO requirements, this would be at the clear risk of failing in the face of a legal challenge,” he said.
When asked for comment for this article, Ms Berry said: “Greens on the London Assembly have opposed the building of the Silvertown Road Tunnel from the start. It will create more traffic affecting Londoners on roads across a wide area and is the wrong project in a climate emergency when people need greener ways to cross the river.
"There remains a huge political risk that a future mayor will be tempted to remove or lower the tolls, making the whole scheme a disaster for Londoners.
"The whole project needs to be paused and rethought. The work I have done with local people and campaigners shows many better uses of the new tunnels for public transport walking and cycling, and the mayor should be looking at these urgently.”
The mayor and TfL
TfL and Mr Khan have repeatedly stressed that, while there is no explicit legal obligation to stick to the planned tolls on the Blackwall Tunnel and Silvertown Tunnel, the statutory commitments in the DCO mean they do not believe any amendments will occur.
In a written answer to a question posed by Ms Pidgeon in November 2021, Mr Khan wrote: “I do not agree that the user charges are set at the discretion of a future mayor.
“The Charging Policy, and the User Charging Assessment Framework, set out a clear statutory process by which the initial user charges will be set and how they will be varied in future to ensure delivery of the scheme’s assessed benefits and impacts.
“Non-compliance with the terms of the Development Consent Order is potentially a criminal offence and as such it is hard to countenance circumstances under which a future mayor would wish to place themselves in such a position.”
A spokesperson for TfL told LondonWorld the authority, and the mayor, “are clear” that a user charge is required as part of the scheme.
While conceding TfL cannot speculate on policy decisions by future mayors, the spokesperson said any changes would have to comply with the statutory process set out in the DCO.
The scheme’s current design was also a condition of one of TfL’s funding agreements with the government, meaning it is “essentially fixed”.
The TfL spokesperson said: “The Silvertown Tunnel, once open, will support growth in the local area, provide new public transport connections across the river via zero-emission bus routes and address the chronic issues Londoners face at the Blackwall Tunnel.
“We remain committed to delivering this project with minimal impact to those living, working and visiting the local area and the project remains on target to be completed in 2025.
“As has been publicised for many years, once the Silvertown Tunnel opens, drivers must pay a user charge for using either the Blackwall or the Silvertown Tunnel. The exact charge levels for various types of vehicles using the new tunnel will be decided closer to the opening date.
“This user charge will pay for building and maintaining the tunnel - but its main purpose is to help us manage traffic levels. Any surplus revenue will be reinvested in London’s transport network.”