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News catch-up: Environmental experts call for halt to Thames tunnel plans

Simon Aldous

Climate experts and transport planners call for a review of London’s Silvertown traffic scheme. Plus Thomas Heatherwick’s anti-pollution electric car, Tamsie Thomson becomes RIAS chief executive and heritage groups unite against Eric Parry’s Fleet Street Justice Quarter

The original Blackwall Tunnel in the making as Thames Tunnel.
The original Blackwall Tunnel in the making as Thames Tunnel. Credit: iStock/clu

Is the Silvertown Tunnel under the Thames an opportunity to reduce traffic pollution or a scheme that flies in the face of the UK’s pledges to reduce climate change?

The tunnel, for which dRMM has designed portal buildings as well as an accompanying cycle and footbridge, has been championed by London mayor Sadiq Khan as a way of eliminating congestion at the Blackwall Tunnel, which he says causes some of the worst air pollution in London.

But opponents argue that the £1.2 billion scheme will in fact increase overall pollution by encouraging more road journeys.

Last week 52 transport planners and climate experts wrote to Khan and transport secretary Grant Shapps, calling for an emergency review of the tunnel’s environmental impact, with all work halted in the interim. At the moment, tunnelling is set to start by the end of the year, with completion scheduled for 2025.

In the week when the UK pledged a new target to slash emissions by 78 per cent by 2035, they argued that the project ‘can only contribute to the UK’s excessive greenhouse gas emissions’.

They added that it would also skew London’s transport system further towards roads, and exacerbate local air pollution problems.

This sounds very much like the same argument that the mayor has championed in his advocation of ‘low-traffic neighbourhoods’. These block off rat-runs, making road journeys slower and less attractive, on the grounds that this will reduce the total amount of road traffic.

The scheme received a development consent order in 2017 and tunnelling is set to start by the end of the year, with completion scheduled for 2025.

dRMM has previously described itself as ‘challenged’ by its involvement in the scheme, with director Alex de Rijke admitting it appeared to ‘contradict the practice’s long-held position on environmental issues’. He concluded that, in fact,  ‘the inverse is true’ and that the practice could make the project ‘more sustainable’ – which definitely has echoes of the justifications other architects have given for designing airports.

Environmental concerns are not the only controversy dRMM has faced regarding the project. There have been accusations of a conflict of interest since practice director Sadie Morgan sits on the National Infrastructure Commission, which has supported the new tunnel.


Inside Heatherwick Studio’s AIRO pollution munching car.
Inside Heatherwick Studio’s AIRO pollution munching car. Credit: Heatherwick Studio

… while Heatherwick vacuums up the pollution 

But is an increase in traffic only a short-term problem? After all, from 2035 the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans will be banned in the UK – though no date has yet been set for when such a ban will be extended to lorries.

Getting in on the soon-to-be-booming electric car market is designer Thomas Heatherwick, whose practice believes it has gone one better with a car that is not only emission free, but  will also ‘vacuum up pollutants from other cars as it drives along’. 

The Airo Car, to be manufactured by Chinese car company SAIC Motor, can be either self-driving or driver controlled. It also features rotating seats which can be arranged round a table, offering a definite essence of camper van. 

It can also be converted into a cosy-looking double bed, though it’s not clear whether it would still be autonomously driving while its passengers slumbered.


RIAS chief executive Tamsie Thomson.
RIAS chief executive Tamsie Thomson.

LFA director ups sticks for Scotland as RIAS sets its chart for the future

Scottish architects will hope that the appointment of Tamsie Thomson as chief executive of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) marks the final closure of a period of dramatic change for their professional body.

Thomson, currently managing director of the London Festival of Architecture and managing director of New London Architecture, moves to the new role three and a half years after nearly 100 architects, under the banner A New Chapter, had called for an overhaul of the organisation, demanding members directly elected its president. 

The following year, Robin Webster became the incorporation’s first directly elected president since the 1980s, with a remit to shake up the organisation.

Last year he was succeeded by Christina Gaiger, who at 33 was the RIAS’s youngest-ever president, and who vowed to continue overhauling the institution. The new role of chief executive is part of this programme, replacing a controversial secretary/treasurer post.

While Thomson will be moving from a job intrinsically connected with London, she has strong links with Edinburgh, having partly grown up there as well as studying architecture at Edinburgh College of Art.

Her five years at the London Festival of Architecture have seen it launch several high-profile architectural competitions, most notably for temporary pavilions at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Previously she was director of RIBA London for over six years. 

Parry’s Justice Quarter unites heritage groups

The champagne will have been flowing at Eric Parry Architects this week after it won approval for a £240 million courts complex in the City of London.

Heritage groups, however, are less euphoric since the project involves the demolition of several historic, though unlisted, buildings. In fact, the scheme has enraged the full phalanx of conservationist organisations: Historic England, SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the Victorian Society and the Twentieth Century Society – the age range of the buildings enabling outrage from both the latter organisations.

Parry’s ‘Justice Quarter’ comprises a seven-storey courts complex, to be clad in limestone and granite, as well as a new headquarters for the City of London Police and a commercial building.

The three buildings will replace an entire block of a conservation area on the south side of Fleet Street. 

SAVE’s director Henrietta Billings said Fleet Street was famous for its ‘rich newspaper history … well-preserved streets and alleyways and medieval street pattern’ and called the planned demolitions ‘crass and short-sighted’.

Historic England is particularly concerned by the threat to former warehouse Salisbury Court and a Georgian house, 1 Salisbury Square. The Twentieth Century Society meanwhile is upset by the planned demolition of 1920s newspaper office Chronicle House and a neo-baroque bank building, both of which it recommended for listing last year.

Indeed, the planning officer’s report noted the harm the scheme would cause to the conservation area as well as admitting that it conflicted with both the London Plan and the City’s own local plan. It concluded, however, that these issues were outweighed by the scheme’s public benefits, making one wonder what the point is of having conservation areas and local plans in the first place.

The City has claimed it needs the Justice Quarter to maintain its competitiveness as a global centre for business, law and justice.

Eric Parry, whose practice is also designing a 36-storey tower in the City, has said the Justice Quarter scheme comes with ‘a huge responsibility to design buildings that are sustainable and modern … while paying homage to the history and context of a place’.

The heritage groups, one guesses, would favour that instead of new buildings paying homage to the area’s history, the existing ones were allowed to remain.


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