Great Britain

No silver lining or light at the end of this tunnel

AFTER a recent freedom of information request about the Silvertown tunnel, a proposed car and HGV link under the Thames alongside the Blackwall tunnel, Transport for London replied to me on July 1 and admitted that “the costs of cancelling the scheme would be significant … and would have to be funded from other project budgets due to the private finance currently funding the scheme.”

So the cancellation of an environmentally disastrous scheme will damage other projects because of the need to pay off the financiers.

This is an appalling abuse of public funds and another example of why private finance initiatives are an expensive accounting scam that should never have been allowed near public-sector projects.

In a PFI deal, a private finance company — a special purpose vehicle — is set up and it borrows to construct a new asset such as a school, hospital or road.

The taxpayer then makes payments over the contract term (typically 25 to 30 years), which cover debt repayment, financing costs, maintenance and any other services provided.

The National Audit Office published a scathing report on the rationale, costs and benefits of the government’s PFI schemes in 2018.

It pointed out that PFI can result in significant additional costs, as well as the higher cost of finance. 

Its analysis of these data for one group of schools showed that PFI costs were around 40 per cent higher than the costs of a project financed by government borrowing. 

Back in 2011 the Treasury committee estimated the cost of a privately financed hospital to be 70 per cent higher, which begs the question of why the government continued with the scheme.

It’s a way of getting headline public borrowing figures down, but this is a massively short-term perspective given that the total costs to the public are way higher over the long term. 

The report states that, given this background, the economic case for the model rests on achieving cost savings in the construction or operation of the project or through the delivery of a qualitatively superior project, but the Treasury currently lacks a methodology for assessing whether this is the case.

No cogent case has yet been presented describing the mechanisms though which PFI could yield these benefits — this all comes under the facile heading of “public equals bad and private equals good” and is a feeble rationalisation of private interests enriching themselves through the state, something that didn’t begin with Serco and the test and trace scandal.

This is not an insignificant issue. A recent study showed the PFI debt for the British taxpayer is more than £300 billion for infrastructure projects (for projects with a value of only £54.7bn).

To put it into perspective, the current government budget deficit is £247bn. In 2008/09 the deficit was £111bn, a figure used to justify austerity.

The tunnel itself, from Newham in east London to Greenwich, is an environmental disaster that will not solve London’s transport problems.

An RMT resolution passed at the July 10 London and South East TUC council meeting (LESE) called on LESE to “explore a range of options to increase public transport to reduce pollution. We note that a broad-based campaign has developed for stopping the £2bn Silvertown tunnel PFI, which campaigners claim will encourage greater HGV use in London and raise congestion and pollution levels in eastern and south-east London.” 

Since then the RMT’s national executive committee has adopted the following position: “That we support campaigning to oppose the Silvertown tunnel as part of our wider campaigning to prioritise public investment that protects and significantly expands public transport and the fight against climate change and pollution whilst promoting economic growth and the creation of secure, well-paid, unionised public transport jobs.”

The proposed tunnel will be able to take the larger HGVs that currently cannot use the Blackwall tunnel. New roads induce new traffic, and here this new traffic will include a lot more heavily polluting HGVs.

The Silvertown and Blackwall tunnels will share the same approach road south of the river that will mean more pollution and more congestion in a part of London that already has serious air quality issues. 

In response to another freedom of information request, TfL claimed that the tolls to be imposed on both Silvertown and Blackwall tunnels (the latter is currently free) meant that they did not expect any significant additional HGV traffic at the Silvertown/Blackwall tunnel as a result of the scheme “principally due to the user charge … on both tunnels to control demand.

Then why is the new tunnel going to be big enough to take large HGVs?

There is a toll on the Dartford crossing as well. Given the savings on distance (it’s 18 miles from Silvertown to the Dartford crossing), it’s likely that a significant amount of HGV traffic will divert to the new tunnel, and this may explain why a huge new lorry park is planned at Silvertown.

According to Public Health England, seven out of every 100 deaths of people over the age of 30 years in the borough of Newham is as a result of poor air quality. Only 42 per cent of people in Newham have a car.

The new Silvertown tunnel and lorry park are not being built with the welfare of the citizens of Newham in mind, nor their working-class counterparts south of the river: those that do have a car will now have to pay to cross the river and compete on the roads with an army of HGVs further vitiating the air of an already dangerously polluted part of the city.

At a time when we are trying to cut carbon emissions, why are we building roads and infrastructure that will encourage more car and HGV traffic in such an inner-city area?

This is a scandalous project made worse by the fact that the obscenity of PFI funding renders it so expensive to cancel. Both PFI and the tunnel have to stop.

PFI is theft from the public purse and the tunnel’s long-term damage to our priceless environment is way too high a price to pay.

If you want to help the South East London Communist Party in our fight to stop the tunnel, contact us through our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/SELCP)

See a Q&A briefing on the scheme here: mstar.link/3f1lj1y.

Stewart McGill is a candidate for the Communist Party in the May 2022 local authority elections. 

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