Net Zero Targets and Decarbonising Transport — [Caroline Nokes in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:56 am on 4th February 2020.

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Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Treasury) 9:56 am, 4th February 2020

I am very grateful to serve under your chairship for the first time, Ms Nokes, and I look forward to doing so again in future.

I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about the green transformation that our transport system needs. More than anything else, we need affordable and accessible public transport, with electric buses and zero-carbon trains, right across the country. We need to make good green investments now, and to stop making dirty investments.

City residents already emit far less carbon from travel. Londoners’ transport emissions are less than half the UK average. That is because we have a decent bus, tube and train system—we have to invest those systems to create the benefits in our cities and towns—but we still have to make London’s transport greener.

We must stop making dirty investments. The dirty investment closest to my constituency is City airport in Newham, from which I am sure that many hon. Members have flown. It is a lovely little airport, I will admit, but I have constantly opposed its expansion. As a young woman, I even went to the public inquiry to advocate against it being built. I heard all the rubbish that residents and my friends and neighbours were told about how the airport would be contained, would not grow and would not impact on their lives. When I visited my mum and dad in the block of flats where I grew up, however, the back of my throat was coated with fuel—I could taste it. Dad has had throat cancer and mum has had breast cancer, although I am sure that none of that is related.

It is not just about airports. I want to focus on another big local decision: the Silvertown tunnel. In east London, we have a problem with public transport connections across the river. Some might say, “Who wants to go to the south side?”, but some people do and the lack of connections is a major problem. The lack of decent public transport links means that people drive—they see no other option. The Blackwall tunnel and all the roads around it are hugely congested; the queues go on for absolutely miles, pumping out carbon and deadly pollution all the while. The new tunnel is not the solution.

I am told that building Silvertown will cost an estimated £1 billion, using a private finance initiative, so local residents will have to pay for the construction of the new tunnel through tolls. To ensure that the tolls pay, we will also toll the Blackwall tunnel and probably the Rotherhithe tunnel, while the crossing down at Thurrock is also tolled. So, the people of east London, where child poverty is massive and poverty in general is undeniably high, will pay for the joy of going south of the river, while the people of west London can pop across a number of bridges. There are also good transport links in west London—but not in the east. That, however, is not the only reason I am against Silvertown. I am against the tunnel because its construction alone will cause massive carbon emissions: more than 153,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, the same as the total emissions of more than 28,000 UK residents last year.

If everything that the tunnel’s big business backers say about the construction of the tunnel were true, at least there might be some benefits from having it once it is built. I am afraid I do not believe that, and I am sure that many Members in the Chamber would not believe it either. We know that when a road is put in, people use it. They see it as an even better opportunity to get into their car and to drive and, before long, that road too is congested. I am not the only one who does not believe in those benefits, because on the record are my hon. Friend Matthew Pennycook and Newham, Hackney and Lewisham Councils. We all oppose the tunnel, as do more and more of my residents as they find out what is happening on their doorstep.

The truth is that the roads leading up to the tunnel are already massively congested, and no one is planning to widen them, so the congestion is likely to continue. In a best-case scenario, the queues will possibly die down in the immediate lead-up to the tunnel—to begin with. Even if that happens, however, I fear that all the extra traffic will simply be diverted to a bottleneck further down the road towards Barking and out to the east, or on to our already choked local roads, as people attempt to divert around the problems. Congestion might therefore not fall at all, despite the new tolls on all the crossings in the east—I think I mentioned that, but it is a bit of a bugbear.

Why is big business so in favour of a tunnel at Silvertown? It will be taller than the Blackwall tunnel, which was built almost 150 years ago, I think, and massive lorries will therefore be able to go through it from south to north. Also, those heavy goods vehicles, unlike bicycles, have been promised a special lane of their own—they will share the bus lane. HGVs, the big nasty polluters on our roads, will get special concessions to get through the new tunnel. We know why they are so keen to see HGVs going through the Silvertown tunnel: conveniently, a three-storey, 24-hour warehouse and lorry park is planned for not far away from it. That will be at least 2,500 extra lorries a day from that distribution centre alone.

The stakes are high in such decisions—we all accept that. In Newham, 16,000 children attend schools close to the feeder roads in Silvertown, with a similar number in Greenwich. We already have high air pollution at illegal levels. Newham, where Silvertown is—in case anyone was in any doubt—has the worst toxic air quality in the country. The British Heart Foundation estimates that breathing the air is as bad for health as smoking 159 cigarettes annually, stunting child development and leading to 96 premature deaths every year.

The impacts are not just local. This is not only about Silvertown but about the type of decisions that we are making. We need to make the right decisions now in order to prevent a climate disaster. We need to protect our children from these outrageous decisions that will significantly impact on their health. I plead to anyone who will listen: please, think again: stop expanding Heathrow or City airports, stop the Silvertown tunnel and do not build that lorry park. Let us invest in green transport links instead.