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dRMM hits back at ‘perceived hypocrisy’ in row over Silvertown Tunnel job

Tfl image greenwich portal overview drop drmm ferrovial
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dRMM, a founding signatory of Architects Declare, has spoken out after being accused of hypocrisy for taking a role on London’s Silvertown road tunnel project

The RIBA Stirling Prize-winning practice has also hit back over conflict of interest claims regarding its appointment on the £1.2 billion job. Questions had been raised about whether dRMM should be on the scheme, given that one of its co-founders, Sadie Morgan, is currently a commissioner at the National Infrastructure Commission, a supporter of the project.

Last week the AJ revealed that dRMM was working on new portal buildings for the proposed 1.4km tunnel under the river Thames between Greenwich and Silvertown, as well as a ‘fully accessible’ planned cycle and footbridge across the northbound approach to the Blackwall Tunnel.

However, dRMM’s involvement in the scheme was denounced by some in social media, who said dRMM’s role on what one critic called the ‘controversial polluting tunnel’ was at odds with its commitment to Architects Declare, which has proclaimed a climate and biodiversity emergency. Signatories have vowed to ‘evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown, and encourage our clients to adopt this approach’.

Siân Berry, Mayor of London candidate and Green Party co-leader, said: ‘Any architect who believes the twin crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are the most serious issue of our time should think hard about being involved in projects whose main purpose is to support unsustainable travel.

‘If you have pledged to design buildings, cities and infrastructures with a more positive impact on the environment, then getting involved in building a toxic urban motorway tunnel would seem to break that promise.’

Victoria Rance, co-ordinator of The Stop Silvertown Tunnel Coalition opposition group, said: ’We are deeply disappointed that dRMM, a signatory of Architects Declare, and a practice that promises “socially useful” architecture has chosen to accept work on the Silvertown Tunnel, a project that is very clearly both environmentally and economically unjustifiable.’

In response (see full letter at bottom) dRMM founding director Alex de Rijke acknowledged that the practice was ‘challenged about our involvement on the Silvertown Tunnel project’,

However, he said the practice had taken the decision to be involved ‘in order to try to make the project more sustainable’.

The greatest impact we can make as architects is to champion and engender collaborative change

He added: ‘The greatest impact we can make as architects is to champion and engender collaborative change within the construction industry. We believe this project is an opportunity for architects like dRMM and others who care about the environment to influence the engineering of vital infrastructure, actively make it more sustainable and contribute more positively to the urban realm.’

According to de Rijke, dRMM’s Silvertown projects are in their ‘early stages’ and the practice is ‘developing designs in various sustainable construction materials’. 

However, concerns have also been raised about whether the practice, which is part of the RiverLinx consortium of Spanish construction giant Ferrovial subsidiary Cintra, BAM PPP PGGM, Macquarie Capital and SK E&C, should be working on the scheme, given Morgan’s roles outside of dRMM.

The consortium was awarded the construction contract for the twin-bore tunnel by project backer Transport for London (TfL) in November 2019.

It has since been pointed out that Morgan has held a key position at the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) since 2015. While the government advisory board has never formally assessed the scheme, in its post-election statement in June 2017 the commission identified the Silvertown Tunnel crossing as one of 12 infrastructure priorities for the government.  

Caroline Pidgeon, Lib Dem London Assembly Member, said: ‘I fail to understand how you can be a commissioner at the NIC when your business is set to materially benefit from a project long-backed by NIC.

‘This conflict of interest should have set alarm bells ringing a very long time ago if NIC truly believed in transparency in its decision-making process. Such conflicts of interests must be avoided.

She added: ‘NIC proudly declares that it exists to provide impartial, expert advice on major long-term infrastructure challenges. Their declaration does not seem to match reality.’

The practice has robustly defended its position and that of Morgan. A dRMM spokesperson said: ‘Sadie’s role at the National Infrastructure Commission had no relationship to dRMM securing this contract as part of a wider consortium through open competition. Sadie has played no active role in either the commission’s past statements about the Silvertown Tunnel, nor in dRMM’s work on the project.

‘As a practice we are proud of Sadie and the work she has done to further good design, at the NIC and more widely.’

They added: ‘It is crucial that NIC Commissioners have the right experience and understanding to offer credible professional advice. If commissioners’ practices were effectively prohibited from working on a large number of infrastructure projects, then many architects would choose not to seek a seat at that table, which would be a great loss for our infrastructure legacy and to the architecture profession.’

A commission spokesperson added: ‘The National Infrastructure Commission played no formal role in assessing the Silvertown Tunnel scheme, which had been the subject of planning and consultation work for many years before the commission was established in 2016. While we have previously indicated support for proceeding with the scheme among other priorities, we have never formally investigated nor reported upon the project.

‘However, out of an abundance of caution, Sadie stepped aside from playing any active role in dRMM’s involvement in the RiverLinx consortium, which was awarded by TfL through an open competitive process.’

Two years ago, TfL was granted a Development Consent Order by the Department for Transport for the subterranean scheme, an order which effectively gives the green light to any development categorised as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP).

Construction had been expected to begin this year, with the new tunnel opening ‘from 2025’.

Response to ‘perceived hypocrisy’ from dRMM

Although illustrations recently used in media are not dRMM’s designs, nor do they represent what will eventually be built, it is correct that we are challenged about our involvement on the Silvertown Tunnel project. This does appear to contradict the practice’s long-held position on environmental issues, commitment to Architect’s Declare, and pioneering work in sustainable timber construction. But the inverse is true. After much consideration and debate amongst the directors and team at dRMM, we took the decision to be involved in order to try to make the project more sustainable.

Improved infrastructure connections are needed within and across London. Tower Bridge is the most easterly Central London bridge. The Rotherhithe Tunnel was designed for horses, and is too small to allow vans and trucks. The Blackwall Tunnel is routinely jammed. There is no other east London crossing until the eccentric Woolwich Ferry and the faraway Dartford Bridge. At the moment, another bridge will not be built. The new tunnel will be built.

The first Thames Tunnel was conceived by Marc Brunel in 1823 as a horse and carriage connection. So far, in 177 years of continuous use, the tunnel has accommodated pedestrians, markets, freight wagons and is now used for London Overground passenger trains. I fully expect the Brunels, father and son, had the long view in mind, anticipating the tunnel be used in successively different ways and host rapidly evolving transit technology.

dRMM joined the Riverlinx consortium competition team, convinced by TfL’s brief that the Silvertown Tunnel is not a project promoting private car traffic; that its role is to facilitate and improve public transport and the distribution of essential goods, and will work with successful Congestion and ULEZ Charges and accommodate increasingly electric commercial vehicles and buses taking bicycles.

This project is all about how people move across our capital and food to our shops. Our role is to help Arup in the design of a cycle/footbridge over the existing tunnel approach road in Greenwich, and to design two portal buildings which will serve the new tunnel. Our projects are at early stages and we are developing designs in various sustainable construction materials.

The greatest impact we can make as architects is to champion and engender collaborative change within the construction industry. We believe this project is an opportunity for architects like dRMM and others who care about the environment to influence the engineering of vital infrastructure, actively make it more sustainable and contribute more positively to the urban realm.

Alex de Rijke, practice co-founder

  • 4 Comments

Readers' comments (4)

  • The phrase "the practice had taken the decision to be involved in order to try to make the project more sustainable" could be used to justify working on any project, including coal power stations if it came to it.

    That said, the new Silvertown Tunnel could be argued to be a good solution in that it will reduce pollution creating bottlenecks in the Blackwall Tunnel and will allow better bus links across the river.

    All architects and consultants need to think carefully before they proclaim a strong stance against selected perceived "unsustainable" projects. They will find that virtually any building project could be argued to be "unsustainable" in that they will involve carbon emissions and pollution.

    Are architects prepared to accept less work as a price to pay for stopping new infrastructure projects?

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  • A new river crossing which takes cars is vital for East London it will be great for easing congestion and that will actually help reduce emissions and if the tunnel can also improve walking and cycling infrastructure then even better.

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  • This bit is flat out untrue: "TfL’s brief that the Silvertown Tunnel is not a project promoting private car traffic".

    TfL themselves forecast increase of a third in traffic crossing the river onto congested existing streets. Any bus improvements are thus negated by hitting further congestion in the Greenwich area.

    And there's incentive for extra traffic given that brings in greater toll income to repay the PFI contract taken out by TfL.

    Drmm are fooling nobody except perhaps themselves.

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  • "A new Silvertown Tunnel could be argued to be a good solution in that it will reduce pollution creating bottlenecks in the Blackwall Tunnel".

    It removes bottlenecks northbound but increases them according to projections by a third in the afternoon southbound towards Kent as the new tunnel feeds into the existing road which operates at capacity as it is. That's a third more traffic onto nightly queues of five miles.

    Proponents only ever mention northbound relief and have this huge blindspot on southbound afternoon congestion. It's completely the wrong spot for a crossing given that issue.

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