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Dartford River Crossing

Volume 451: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2006

It gives me great pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Mr. Martlew.

According to Kent county council, the A282 Dartford crossing approach road is the busiest stretch of road in the county, with approximately 150,000 vehicles using the route each day. Unsurprisingly, the route has a pollution record that is also unmatched by other roads in the county. Both nitrogen dioxide and PM10—a category of particulate matter—emissions in the area have been found to be far in excess of the statutory standard emissions objective, and as a result an air quality management area for the A282 corridor was declared by Dartford district council in 2001. Each year, I receive dozens of letters from residents who live next to the A282, complaining about the growing level of pollution and noise from traffic on the road.

Moreover, each year traffic levels on the A282 increase by around 3,000 vehicles a day, many of which are HGVs travelling from well outside north Kent. Indeed the Department for Transport’s figures show that nearly two thirds, or 61 per cent., of vehicles that use the crossing are making journeys of more than 100 km, which emphasises the non-local nature of most of the traffic on the crossing. Despite the high level of congestion and pollution caused by traffic using the crossing, Dartford receives virtually no compensation out of the income from the toll scheme. The tolls generate about £65 million a year, of which £15 million is spent on maintenance costs, leaving a net income of £50 million. Of that £50 million, only £1 million is set aside as credit approvals—not grants, I emphasise—for Kent county council. The rest of the money is spent on transport projects in other parts of the country. I need hardly say how much anger and irritation that causes in my constituency.

Dartford residents find it galling in the extreme that Kent gets nothing from the tolls, other than £1 million in supported borrowing, and that the income is spent instead on transport projects in other parts of the country that will benefit people who may never even have heard of Dartford. They also believe that it is totally unfair that they, unlike anyone else in the country, have to pay to use a section of the local trunk road network. Residents in Manchester are not expected to pay to use sections of the M60, residents in Newcastle are not asked to pay to travel on the A1(M), and the Rotherhithe and Blackwall tunnels, not to mention the Woolwich ferry, are free. Why then should residents in Dartford have to pay to use the M25 to cross the Thames to get to Thurrock? It is not surprising, therefore, that in a recent survey that I carried out in Dartford, nearly half of the respondents called for the total abolition of the tolls, and another third demanded a 100 per cent. discount for local residents.

To add insult to injury, the Department for Transport now proposes to increase the toll charges at the crossing without increasing the pot of money available to Kent. The way in which those proposed changes were announced, was inept; indeed, it bordered on the amateurish. The Department failed to consult or even inform local members or the relevant local authorities of the proposals before it made the announcement. That demonstrates either a total disregard for the interests of the communities concerned, or, at best, gross incompetence within the Department. Lessons must be learned within the Department, and they must be learned fast.

For me, the most disappointing aspect of all this is that the Dartford river crossing toll scheme is being dealt with by the Department in an entirely different way to every other comparable road charging scheme in the country. The scheme is one of only three road user charging schemes in the country that were introduced using powers in the Greater London Authority Act 1999 and the Transport Act 2000. The intention behind the Acts is to use road charges to help to tackle congestion and to earmark the revenue that is generated for use on local transport projects. The London congestion charging scheme and the Durham congestion charging scheme—the country’s only other congestion charging scheme—operate in precisely that fashion. The GLA Act requires that the net revenues of the London scheme must be invested in transport projects in London, and the proceeds of the Durham scheme help to pay for running a shuttle bus system to link the city’s historic attractions with local car parks, bus routes and the main train station.

Another major difference between the Dartford scheme and the London and Durham schemes is that residents in London and Durham, unlike those in Dartford, were able to have a say as to whether they wanted the schemes in the first place. In London, Ken Livingstone included proposals for a scheme to reduce congestion in his 2000 election manifesto. After he was elected, he spent 20 months consulting on and amending the details of the scheme before finally announcing, in February 2002, his decision that it should go ahead. The decision to introduce a congestion charge in Durham city centre in 2002 was taken by Durham county council after a public consultation exercise the year before had resulted in a positive response from local residents. In Dartford, on the other hand, the Highways Agency carried out a public consultation in 2001, on the proposal to introduce a charging scheme at the Dartford crossing under the Transport Act 2000. However, the consultees were asked only to consider how revenue from the tolls should be spent, rather than to comment on whether the toll scheme should continue.

In the forthcoming consultation on the proposed changes to the scheme, local residents will once again be denied the opportunity to choose whether to keep the tolls. As a result, Dartford residents understandably feel that they are being discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens. At a time when the Department seeks to build a consensus in favour of rolling out road charging across the whole of the country, it makes absolutely no sense to treat people in that way. The way in which the Dartford toll scheme has been managed is giving my constituents, and, I am sure, observers from far wider afield, the impression that the Department sees road charging simply as another means of raising revenue from the taxpayer, rather than a progressive measure to encourage people and businesses to use more sustainable means of transport and thus improve our environment.

My constituency office and local papers such as the Dartford Messenger, which is leading a campaign against the proposed 50p charge hike, have been inundated in the past two weeks with messages from angry residents complaining about the Department’s proposals. It is not too late for the Department to think again. I have made it clear to my constituents that I am not prepared to support the proposed increase, or any toll charge at all for Dartford residents, until I receive guarantees that the bulk of the revenue from the tolls—I think it should be at least 75 per cent.—will be spent on local transport projects in north Kent and south Essex. I also want the Department either to scrap the charge completely for local residents or give them a significant discount.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important issue before the House. It is right that he does so. I thank him also for supporting, albeit tangentially by amendment, my early-day motion on the Dartford crossing increase. If more money is to be raised from our roads, would not it be better to charge European lorries for entering the country instead of further burdening the people of south Essex and north Kent with the Dartford crossing toll? To my mind, the situation is downright dishonest and a betrayal of the people, because the legislation said that the tolls would end when the project was paid for—

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know that he feels strongly about this issue, as he has raised it with me several times. I am sure that his constituents will be pleased that he is making his views known today.

Given that the Department’s data suggest that only 3 per cent. of trips over the crossing are local in nature, scrapping or reducing the charge for local residents would be a small change, but would make a significant difference to people’s perception of the scheme. There is, after all, a pressing need for additional investment in Dartford’s transport infrastructure. Progress on some of Dartford’s major redevelopment projects is being held up by concerns about the capacity of Dartford’s local and trunk road network. Eastern quarry is a prime example of that. Similarly, the decision to make Abbey Wood the terminus for the Crossrail network, rather than Ebbsfleet, will restrict some of Kent Thameside’s development potential. A host of transport projects identified in the Swanscombe and Greenhithe master plan that are designed to help to integrate villages into the new developments in Kent Thameside also await funding.

Improvements to railway stations along the north Kent line are also long overdue. Dartford station desperately needs a refit and additional platform capacity, and a scheme to expand Greenhithe station has been on the drawing board for at least 10 years. In addition, repeated promises to install a low-noise road surface on both carriageways of the A2 in Wilmington and to provide additional screening have not been kept. Residents in Bean are dissatisfied with the measures that have been taken to mitigate the impact of traffic noise and pollution from the A2 on their community.

Then there is the lower Thames crossing, which is essential if we are at least to stabilise traffic growth in Kent Thameside and relieve the pressure on the A2 and the Dartford crossing. It will certainly make far more difference to congestion on the Dartford crossing than any putative rise in the tolls. The crossing will enable road traffic from the channel ports en route to the midlands and the north to avoid London and Dartford altogether and it will free up additional capacity to cater for the anticipated growth in traffic that will occur as a result of increased housing in Kent Thameside.

If the crossing incorporated a rail link as well as a road link, it would help to encourage more businesses to transfer their cargo from road to rail, particularly if the crossing is well connected with the proposed development at Shell Haven and is properly integrated into the national rail network. Currently, rail freight from Kent is virtually unable to pass through London at peak periods because of the number of commuter services and the restricted capacity of the north Kent line, and that is holding back any kind of growth in rail freight.

Successive generations of transport planners have recognised the critical importance of the project. It was first proposed as long ago as the 1960s, as part of the “Roads to Prosperity” programme and it was a key transport objective in “Action in the East Thames Corridor”, one of the earliest planning documents relating to the Thames Gateway, which SERPLAN—the London and South East Regional Planning Conference—published in 1990. I am therefore pleased that the Department has finally announced that it is to commission a study to look at the possibility of a new Thames crossing. However, it is essential that that study is undertaken quickly, given the time that it would take to commission and build a new crossing.

In his response, the Minister will no doubt point to all the investment that has been put into Dartford’s transport infrastructure in the past few years and refer to the Fastrack public transport scheme and the many millions going into the ongoing improvement of the A2. I do not deny any of that—indeed, I was the first to welcome that investment when it was suggested—but I resent the suggestion that Dartford has somehow already had more than its fair share of funding and that that justifies the decision to spend the toll revenue elsewhere in the country.

It is important to put on the record that Dartford is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. About a sixth of the housing that is due to be built in the Thames Gateway by 2016 is earmarked for Kent Thameside and the Ebbsfleet valley, which have been identified as one of the two major economic growth hubs in the whole gateway, along with Stratford. Indeed, the Government have made it clear that the success of the Kent Thameside regeneration strategy is one of their key, overarching national urban policy goals. The transport investment that Dartford has received so far is the bare minimum that is necessary to support that level of growth, but even more will be needed if that growth is to be sustainable in the long term.

Hypothecating the toll revenue for local transport projects in Dartford is not only the fairest way of using the income that the crossing generates, but essential for regeneration. As I said, it would also bring the toll scheme into line with other charging schemes introduced under the same legislation. I therefore urge the Minister to introduce hypothecation as soon as possible and to ensure that local residents are exempted from the toll charge either completely or very substantially. That is the only fair and logical way forward, and nothing less will satisfy me or my constituents. Such a move would also provide some compensation for the rather shabby way in which Dartford has been treated in respect of the tolls in the past few years. If such proposals are not introduced, however, I cannot support the proposed changes or the continued presence of the tolls.

I associate myself with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) said. I represent Thurrock, which is on the other side of the bridge, and I support his views and his protest, which he has outlined to hon. Members.

Strictly speaking, we are not talking about the M25, but the Thurrock-Dartford crossing is part of the M25 to all intents and purposes. It was therefore a gross discourtesy on the part of the Minister and his Department not to advise Members in the area before he made his announcement. He has apologised informally, but that is not good enough. his actions and those of the Department were sloppy and inexcusable, and I will not forget it.

Let me set out the history of the matter. Under an Act of Parliament—you probably voted for it, Mr. Martlew, but it was before I came to the House—there was to be no tolling once the bridge was paid for. Approximately four years ago, it was paid for, and, under the Act, the tolling was supposed to cease. However, the Transport Act 2000, to which my hon. Friend referred, was bounced through the House and gave the Government a way of continuing to derive revenue from the crossing. I protested at the time and I regret that, instead of listening to me, Thurrock council listened to the then Transport Minister, who offered it the carrot of some extra borrowing if it acquiesced in the continued tolling. I told the council that it was being foolhardy in the extreme and I take no satisfaction from the fact that I will be proved prophetic when the council realises that it was indeed foolish to acquiesce in the continued tolling.

At the very least, I had thought that the tolling would wither on the vine. I thought that it would continue to give the Department for Transport a revenue stream, but that it would reduce in real terms. Why? Because it is an unfair tax, particularly on my constituents and those of my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and other hon. Members representing areas to the east of London. It is demonstrably unfair that our constituents are making a disproportionate contribution to the running of the M25 and other road projects, when the costs should be met by all motorists. That is what is so unacceptable. It is amazing that the Government have produced such an unfair proposal, which hits some of the most disadvantaged people. Those people have to go to work on the other side of the river, and the tax on their trip to work, which is already £10 a week, will be even higher if the present proposals are accepted.

I do not oppose road charging—indeed, there is a lot to be said for it—but we should introduce a planned, comprehensive national system under which there is parity of treatment and people pay as they go. The people of Thurrock, Dartford and nearby areas should not pay for other people’s motoring.

Congestion will increase under the present proposals. My hon. Friend told us about the problems of pollution, which are often caused by static vehicles pumping out fumes. Clearly, if motorists have to find £1.50, rather than just a £1 coin, that will mean greater delays, so the proposals do not make sense from that point of view.

I understand that the Minister’s motive is revenue, and he may try to tell us that the proposals are part of the plan for road charging and tolling. If so, will he also announce the proposal for an experimental road-pricing system in and around Broadstairs? I am told that that is being introduced, but I do not imagine that he will amplify on it today.

The fact is that the proposals are unfair to the people in the area. We need to make it clear that it is time for the Minister and his colleagues to think again about the operation of the scheme, its inequity and whether it could be part of a road-pricing scheme.

The tolling did prove to be successful, and I am certainly a convert to the idea of paying for a bridge or river crossing by means of tolling. Furthermore, the idea of a further crossing is compelling, and I cannot understand the delay, because the project could be a gilt-edged investment. It could be paid for by users not of the Thurrock-Dartford crossing, but of the new bridge, which could and should be constructed with the utmost expedition in the interests of United Kingdom Ltd. and commerce. That should be happening now.

I do not want to discourage the use of tolling to pay for bridges, and I am quite happy about road pricing as a matter of principle—indeed, there is a compelling case for arguing that it is fair—but the current proposal to increase toll charges, and the manner in which it was introduced, are unacceptable. I will do everything that I can to frustrate the new charges—and I will not be so nice next time.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) on securing the debate. He is a tireless and forthright campaigner for his constituents—indeed, he is no less forthright than my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay).

I reiterate my apology to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock. I realise that the way in which the announcement was made upset him, but it was made by way of a written ministerial statement, so it was not possible to give advance notice of the detail of the events involved. A letter was sent to both my hon. Friends the day before so that they would have it the morning that the announcement was made. I also personally looked for both of them in the Lobbies the day before the announcement was made to ensure that they were aware that the letter was coming, but, unfortunately, I could not find either of them. Nevertheless, I fully apologise for the fact that they did not receive the information in a more timely and appropriate way.

I should explain one further point. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford called for consultations on the proposals, but I do not think that he understands that they have not even started yet. We are in a period before the consultation in which we are preparing the consultation documents. We announced our ideas several weeks before the consultation is due to begin precisely so that we could get this sort of feedback and build it into the consultation document. That will be published early in December, and there will then be a full 12-week consultation on it.

Let me make some progress.

There will be a full 12-week consultation before we make a final decision. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford that we have an open mind. He made some powerful points, put forward constructive ideas that we can examine and identified, as I informally asked him to do, local projects for us to assess whether we can fund them out of this revenue, to give a clear indication to local people that they are seeing the benefit of the toll.

Just one moment. My hon. Friend also suggested that we should consider a substantial discount for local people. I do not envisage the possibility of having no charging for local people, because, as I shall explain in a minute, the purpose is to restrict the growth of traffic on a bridge and crossing whose capacity has already been exceeded. If there was to be no charge for local people, there would be rapid growth in the level of traffic on the bridge. Nevertheless, he put forward an idea about a local discount that we can examine.

I shall allow the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) to intervene first, and then I shall allow my hon. Friend to do so.

I am grateful for the Minister’s customary generosity. Will he extend consultation to constituencies other than those of Dartford and Thurrock, given that other constituencies in north Kent and south Essex are closely involved in this matter? Will he also consider those additional constituencies for discounts for local people and for local road projects? Will he give the undertaking now?

I am happy to give an undertaking that I will encourage responses to the consultation from far and wide, including the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The comments that he has made today, and those in his early-day motion, will inform not only the consultation document, but the consultation itself.

The Minister accepts that any tolling has implications beyond the immediate area and will know that the public inquiry into the Thames Gateway bridge has just concluded. At that inquiry, all the traffic modelling, projections and forecasts, and the consideration of possible future tolls on a Thames Gateway bridge, were based on the current tolling regime for Dartford. Does he think there needs to be a reassessment of the traffic modelling presented to that inquiry and a reopening of the inquiry based on any changes to the Dartford tolling regime?

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that any decision on the Thames Gateway project will be made with all the material facts before it. Were we to conclude during the consultation process that we had in any way altered the projections presented to the public inquiry, we would have to respond accordingly. The Department has said in principle that it supports the Thames Gateway proposal and we do not envisage our proposals in respect of the Dartford crossing having an adverse effect on that.

I know that my hon. Friend has strong views on that bridge. If he would like to meet to express them, I would be happy to have a meeting with him either before the start of consultation, or during it if he would prefer that. I make the same offer to my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford and for Thurrock, and to other hon. Members in the Chamber who want to make representations. My door is open and I am happy to hear their ideas.

As has been said, tolling at the crossing was due to end when the debts associated with its construction were fully discharged, and that is correct.

As my hon. Friend said, it was set out in the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Act 1988. All the debts associated with the construction of the bridge and tunnels were paid off by the end of March 2002. The Act made provision for an additional year of tolling to build up a maintenance fund, so the powers to charge a toll at the crossing expired on 31 March 2003, as my hon. Friends said. In that respect, we fully adhered to what was set out and promised by the 1988 Act, and tolling did end at the time stated.

Before the expiry of the powers, the Government commissioned consultants to investigate the effect that removing the charges would have on traffic levels. The research, published in 2001, suggested that the use of the crossing would grow more rapidly if the toll were removed and there were no congestion charge. Following that, in the summer of 2001, the Highways Agency carried out a public consultation on the proposal to introduce a charging scheme under the Transport Act 2000 which included seeking views on the proposed charging structure. Following that consultation, it was decided to implement the current charging scheme, which came into force on 1 April 2003 and is still in place.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford that the Dartford- Thurrock river crossing is a vital link on our trunk-road network and is one of the busiest stretches of road in the country. On average, traffic levels daily exceed the crossing’s free-flow design capacity, and we forecast that they will continue to grow, so without significant action now there could be very high levels of congestion every day.

If we were to adopt the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock of completely removing the charge, the situation would be disastrous in traffic terms. There is no getting away from the fact that removing the current congestion charge would have serious consequences for traffic congestion, not just on the crossing but on the whole of the M25 and the surrounding region. Regeneration opportunities for my hon. Friends’ constituencies would be hampered and the possibility of the Thames Gateway project progressing would be seriously undermined. It would have an even worse impact on air quality. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford is right that congestion on the bridge has an impact on air quality. If we were to allow even quicker growth in traffic, the situation would be even worse for his constituents.

To try to address the increased seriousness of those problems, we propose to encourage lorries to use the bridge at night rather than during the day by making the bridge free between 10 pm and 6 am. I am not suggesting that a huge number of them will take this opportunity. Secondly, we want traffic to flow as freely as possible on the bridge, so we want to encourage more people to start using the Dart tag.

Although my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford and for Thurrock suggested that we are proposing a massive increase in the cost of using the bridge, if people take out a Dart tag, they need not face any cost increase. Under the proposals, the Dart tag cost will be £1 a journey, so there is no increase compared with the current cash price. If people want to carry on paying cash, they can pay £1.50 a journey, but I hope that we will encourage a great many to switch to the Dart tag, at a much lower price.

My hon. Friends might say that no one wants to take out a Dart tag, but I must ask them how else I can offer a discount to local people as they suggest I do. Any discount that I might be able to offer to local people as a consequence of their campaigning and feedback would have to be dependent on their taking out a Dart tag, because that is the only way we would know that they were local.

It is vital that we encourage people to consider the Dart tag, and I would welcome feedback from Members and their constituents on whether it is difficult to get a Dart tag, the barriers to doing so, and how I can make it easier for people to get one so that they can avail themselves of the significant discount that we are already offering compared with the current cash price, never mind any further discount that we might consider offering.

We examined a number of options for what the toll ought to be. We opted for £1.50 a journey as the cash price, because there would be a significant discount if one used the £1 a journey Dart tag charge that we are proposing. It also means a two-coin transaction which will make it easier for people when they stop at the toll both. We realise that £1 is usually an easy single-coin transaction for people and did not want to opt for a three-coin transaction, so a £1.50 charge is a way of avoiding that. Nevertheless, the convenience and opportunities of a Dart tag, especially for local people, should be promoted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford pointed out that only a relatively small number of crossings—

It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.