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Blackwall Tunnel (Contraflow)

Volume 460: debated on Thursday 17 May 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this important issue in the House. Perhaps I can briefly set out a little of the background. For 29 years, a contraflow system has operated during the morning peak hour in the Blackwall tunnel. That means that there are three lanes of traffic going northbound from south-east London and Kent into London, and one lane of traffic going south. That sensibly reflects the demands of the traffic at that time of the day. On 20 April, Transport for London, which took over responsibility for the Blackwall tunnel in 2000, with the creation of the Greater London authority, terminated that contraflow operation at something less than 48 hours notice. The effect of that was to reduce the capacity on the principal arterial route from south-east London, Kent and even the channel ports into London by one third at the busiest time of day.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his speech. I do not want to interrupt his flow, as Transport for London has interrupted the flow in the Blackwall tunnel. My constituents are extremely concerned—as I know his are—about the situation, and I am delighted that he has been able to bring it to the attention of the House so swiftly after the terrible event.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he makes an important point. The issue has caused huge concern among residents in our part of south-east London. Both he and I, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), who is in his place, have received a huge number of letters and e-mails about the matter. Importantly, the issue also affects the strategic national road network—the A2, the A20 and, potentially, the Dartford crossing. It has significant implications.

The practical effects for drivers using the tunnel were well set out in the Evening Standard the following week, which stated:

“Approach roads to the Blackwall Tunnel have been in ‘absolute chaos’ this week after a…priority scheme was scrapped…As early as 6am, drivers have been left fuming in tailbacks…Queues have tailed back three miles to the South Circular Road”.

Having looked at the scene on a number of occasions, I can verify that. The change has brought chaos to the area and there have been frequent reports that it has added anything up to an hour extra to the journeys of people coming in through that key entry point to central London.

I can reinforce my hon. Friend’s point by saying that constituents of mine who live 40 miles from the Blackwall tunnel are having their businesses seriously damaged by the delays. This is not just a disaster for south-east London; it is a disaster all over Kent. It is particularly hurtful to those people, because they have no chance to choose the Mayor of London, who runs Transport for London. Their lives are being severely damaged and they have no say over the person who is damaging them.

My hon. Friend makes two important points: first, that the issue goes well beyond the London boundary, which is why I am raising it with the Minister tonight; and secondly, that it is not just a matter of inconvenience for commuters, but does economic harm and harm to business. He also draws attention to the fact that the people who use the Blackwall tunnel at that time of day do not do so for the sake of their health, despite the rather extraordinary comment of a Transport for London official, who said that many of the people using the tunnel could choose to do otherwise. They do it because they have no alternative. That is why the issue is so important.

That importance has been reflected in correspondence and in a number of website petitions. The decision has been condemned by the AA, by the RAC Foundation, by the Association of British Drivers, by London Councils, on behalf of all the London boroughs on a cross-party basis, and by other local authorities.

Two issues arise: first, the justification for the decision itself, and secondly, the complete lack of consultation, debate or any assessment of alternatives. That second point goes to the heart of the lack of accountability of Transport for London to Londoners and their elected representatives.

Ostensibly, the decision is said to have been made on the advice of the Metropolitan police because there had been an increasing number of near misses and there was a road safety hazard. Obviously, that is something that we want to look into, but we have to remember that the scheme has been operating for the better part of 30 years, while volumes of traffic have increased, which is not likely to have happened overnight.

Very little evidence has been released by TFL to justify the decision, and such as there is is, frankly, flimsy. The material that we have so far—getting information out of TFL is like drawing teeth—indicates that there have been 99 accidents in the area of the tunnel over the last three years. I am not aware of any fatalities, or of the seriousness of any of the accidents. When we look further, however, we find that only six of them occurred during the period that the tidal flow is in operation. That is an average of two a year—hardly a significant figure, given the volume of traffic on that road. It probably compares pretty well with the figures for many of the routes coming into London at that time of day. That is a wholly inadequate evidential basis for taking such a major step.

The evidence raises a number of other questions. There is closed circuit television in the tunnel. TFL relied on evidence of near misses. As the RAC legitimately points out, if some people—a minority of drivers—are driving badly, the first thing that TFL and the police should do is prosecute those people, because they have the footage to do so. We have no evidence of any prosecutions being mounted. It is wrong to use the misbehaviour of a minority to cancel a scheme that benefits the vast law-abiding majority.

In addition, it would have been possible to consider a much more rigorous prosecution policy—to publicise the prosecutions, as has been done successfully for drink-driving and for assaults on TFL staff. Why not consider having a visible police presence at the entry and exit to the tunnel? We could look at installing much more warning signage before and inside the tunnel. We could consider having cameras showing average speeds, which are already installed in the Limehouse link, not far away. All those alternatives should have been considered before this drastic step was taken.

A second point that TFL relied on was guidance under a European directive, but when we examined that we found that it applies to the trans-European network, of which the Blackwall tunnel is not part, so that hardly stacks up either.

As for the complete lack of consultation, it has become apparent that TFL had some concerns about the issue when a report by Capita, its favourite consultant, was submitted in 2005. One might have thought from TFL’s justification for the decision that it was a sudden and urgent matter, but in fact it was an issue in 2005. The obvious and responsible thing to do would have been to bring it into the public domain then, so that all those alternatives that I have just listed could have been raised with the local authorities, the Highways Agency, the Department for Transport—and, indeed, the travelling public. We could have had a sensible debate about how to resolve the problem, if there was one. None of that was done.

We have also discovered that on 12 January—the Minister kindly confirmed this for me—TFL discussed with the Highways Agency the potential cessation of the contraflow. It claims that it also discussed it with the London borough of Greenwich, which is where the tunnel comes out, although the people there are by no means the most affected by the decision. In fact, the London borough of Greenwich says it has no record of any such meeting or discussion taking place. Someone is not telling the truth—and my money is on the London borough of Greenwich being right.

There was no consultation, but if TFL was making the proposal in January, why did it not bring the matter into the public domain at that time? Still nothing was done. The decision was taken at a meeting of the Transport for London road traffic board—apparently a private meeting—on 28 March. It was recommended that a communications and consultation strategy be put in place, building up to a closure of the scheme on 30 July. In fact there was no such communication or consultation, and there was an abrupt closure on 30 April. No evidence has been adduced and no reason has ever been given for that change of tack in TFL’s handling of the matter.

I regret to say that such behaviour is absolutely typical of Transport for London. It has form—form as long as your arm, to use a lawyer’s phrase—in terms of operating in a high-handed fashion, keeping decisions close and within itself, and not consulting partners. Its failure to consult has been criticised by the London assembly, criticised on the Floor of the House during debates on the Greater London Authority Bill, and repeatedly criticised in the press. TFL’s behaviour meant that the assembly, which is charged with oversight of London policy, had no opportunity to debate the proposal—a significant strategic matter—in advance. That was wrong. What on earth was Transport for London hiding?

We know that there are likely to be effects on the national road network. There must be a risk of effects on the Dartford crossing, through displacement, and on the new Thames Gateway bridge, which is being considered by the Department for Transport. None of that has been brought into the public domain. That is the second real rub. A decision was taken based on the most dubious and limited evidence, and no attempt was made to take public opinion along or to consult partners. On any view, that cannot be right. Such conduct certainly ignores the guidance issued under the Highways Act 1980 that there should be consultation on such matters.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), does not have direct managerial responsibility for this matter, and I am grateful to her for the assistance that she has given. However, she can put pressure on Transport for London and the Mayor, and can point out that there are implications that go beyond their own little bailiwick, and that other ways of dealing with the matter should be considered. I hope that she will consider whether her Department should contact the Mayor and Transport for London as a matter of urgency, and say that the issue should be reviewed.

Perhaps the Department could say that the contraflow should be reinstated until such time as there has been a proper risk assessment and public debate, all the evidence has been put in the public domain, and all the alternatives have been looked at. Then we will be able to consider the options in a mature fashion and come to a decision that has some chance of taking the travelling public with it. Unless that is done, it will inevitably be believed that Transport for London has a hidden agenda. It is ironic that only a matter of weeks before, the Mayor had to backtrack on the suggestion of introducing a congestion zone in the Greenwich area around the Blackwall tunnel. It would be in their own interests for TFL and the Mayor to be up-front with people about what is driving the decision.

I know that other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall simply say that I am grateful to have had the opportunity to raise this issue, which affects hundreds of thousands of people in London and the south-east.

I thank the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for allowing me to speak in his debate. I share his view that it is important that we have the widest possible consultation and debate on the implications of what has happened. As the hon. Gentleman said, the southern portal of the tunnel is in Greenwich, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) is unable to be here this evening because of an important constituency engagement.

Although I share Opposition Members’ concerns about the implications of the peak hours changes for traffic flow, congestion and pollution, and about the lack of open debate and consultation, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has actually seen the CCTV footage of traffic in the tunnel that led the police to advise TFL to make changes on safety grounds.

I wonder what the Opposition would be saying if Transport for London had not heeded the police advice and a head-on collision had occurred in the tunnel. The hon. Gentleman talks of near misses, but the consequences of a head-on collision would be horrendous. The evidence suggests that the emergency services would not be able to get to the scene, and there could be damage to the tunnel, which would not just affect the tidal flows but put it out of action for months, if not years.

I share the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed about the lack of debate, information and consultation, but my view, which is shared by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, is that it would have been difficult for Transport for London to ignore the clear police advice on the subject. Nevertheless, the changes present real problems, not only for neighbouring areas but for more distant ones, too, and hon. Members have referred to those problems. If my right hon. Friend were here tonight, he would argue that the changes in tidal flow highlight the importance of an urgent reappraisal of the case for a third Blackwall crossing—the Silvertown link, which he and I both supported.

As the Minister knows, I, and others in the Chamber, were objectors to the Thames Gateway bridge. I have drawn to her attention the implications for traffic flows of proposed changes to the tolls at the Dartford crossing and of changes at Blackwall. The extra traffic expected at the proposed Thames Gateway bridge is likely to mean that tolls on that bridge would have to be changed. The Minister has so far rejected my calls, and calls from the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), for the reopening of the Thames Gateway inquiry to take account of revised traffic forecasts, but I hope that she will now agree that the case has been made for reopening that inquiry to take account of the new situation, following the cessation of the peak tidal flow at Blackwall.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for allowing me to make a short contribution to his Adjournment debate. I congratulate him on obtaining the debate and on his excellent speech. He has set out well the concerns about the termination of the Blackwall tunnel peak-hour contraflow, and I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who is a rational and reasonable woman, listened avidly to what he said. I hope that she will take on board his comments and make representations to the Mayor and Transport for London after the debate.

The lack of consultation, the speed with which the change was implemented, the failure of TFL and the police to give the real facts and figures behind the termination, the consequent problems of traffic congestion and the increase in pollution are the real issues that need to be addressed, and that is what we are debating this evening. Of course, as the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin) said, we are all concerned about road safety, the consequence of accidents in the tunnel and the deteriorating standards of driving on our roads. Those are worrying issues and they need to be addressed. However, the contraflow has been in operation for nearly 30 years.

There are driving and safety issues for both tunnels, and not just during the contraflow. The behaviour of some of the drivers in the tunnel when the contraflow is not in place is quite appalling. Why are the offenders not severely punished? There should be more traffic cameras and more investment in the tunnels. The police should do more, and there could perhaps be notices warning motorists that crossing the white lines or overtaking in the tunnel will result in tough punishment. People in lorries, cars vans or motorbikes who drive dangerously, cross the white line, overtake or drive badly, or in some cases disastrously, would then face really tough punishments.

Does TFL have any long-term plans? The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead said that the situation needs to be improved; perhaps we should consider a bridge over the Blackwall tunnel, just as at Dartford, but we would not want it to be tolled, as the bridge at Dartford is. The costs of that toll are going up, and that will be a problem for those who have to pay the extra cost every time they cross.

In conclusion, problems include the speed with which the change was implemented, the failure to discuss and debate, and the inability of TFL and the police to get the information into the public domain. The public should know that information, so that the bodies concerned can take the public with them, whatever decisions are taken in future. In the short term, I hope that the contraflow will be reopened and that more consultation and discussion will take place on this important issue.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) on securing this debate on what is clearly an important matter not only for his constituents, but for many constituents of other Members present and of Members who could not be with us. I appreciate its seriousness and I also appreciate the manner in which Members have raised their concerns this evening.

As hon. Members know, responsibility for operating the Blackwall tunnel lies with Transport for London, which maintains it and takes operational decisions on its use, in conjunction with the Metropolitan police. However, the Government do of course take an interest in how TFL operates its network and the outcomes, not least because reducing congestion and improving road safety are of paramount importance to us. We work in the expectation that TFL deliver will on both those objectives.

Let me give a little of the background history. The tidal flow system was introduced in 1978 in Blackwall’s southbound tunnel. During brief periods during the morning peak, one of the two lanes in the southbound tunnel was turned over to northbound traffic, which was done in response to traffic patterns at the time. The decision to run a tidal flow system in the Blackwall tunnel was never an ideal solution. Although it made more efficient use of the tunnel, it has become less efficient as traffic flows have changed. Operating a tidal flow system also introduced “head-on” traffic conditions. TFL tells me that that risk of accidents has risen under that system and is far higher than under a single-flow traffic system.

The Metropolitan police operate tidal flow at Blackwall. They observe traffic levels and take operational decisions on exactly when the tidal flow should be opened during the morning peak. It is incumbent on TFL to respect their views when making strategic decisions on the safety of the tunnel’s operation, and TFL can operate the tidal flow system only with the support of the Metropolitan police, who recently approached TFL with reports of increasing levels of dangerous driver behaviour in the southbound tunnel. They were particularly concerned about the increasing number of drivers overtaking in the tunnel.

The Metropolitan police were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with having to operate the tidal flow, and the issue was brought to a head by accidents in the tunnel on 10 and 17 April. However, it was not just a question of the increasing risk of accidents. A crash in the tunnel could have appalling consequences, such as a fire, or the huge disruption that TFL was mindful might result from a major incident in the tunnel. Such an incident could mean the total closure of one tunnel, and possibly both.

TFL’s safety record is impressive, and like the Government it is meeting challenging targets to reduce road casualties.

Last Friday, Len Duvall, the Greater London authority member for Greenwich and Lewisham, and I met representatives of TFL to discuss this issue, and I can confirm the facts that my hon. Friend has just given and those given by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). Does my hon. Friend agree that the information from the police, particularly on recent incidents, is extremely compelling upon TFL? It had a lot of difficulty in sticking to the time scale that it set for holding a public consultation and informing people of this change. If a further accident had happened, there could have been some recourse to compensation from TFL, and some blame laid at its door for not taking heed of what the police had said.

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. All Members will agree that it would be quite wrong of TFL to dismiss any advice given to it by the Metropolitan police. I will deal in a moment with the consultation arrangements, which are well worthy of a mention.

Modelling was carried out by TFL, which of course felt compelled, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) has just said, to act to protect the public. The modelling showed that additional queuing on the approach roads was possible until the situation had stabilised. Analysis also showed the likely diversionary impact, and TFL was satisfied that traffic diverted to other routes could safely and efficiently disperse across other routes. TFL did indeed, as we have heard, discuss its concerns with the Highways Agency. The agency was content that if TFL and the police decided that tidal flow could no longer be sustained, the decision would have only a negligible impact on its roads.

So what has happened? Northbound congestion has increased, as anticipated, and there is indeed a clear impact on the A2, the A102 and other northbound approach roads. Clearly, that is frustrating to drivers and residents in the area, and I appreciate that it is far from ideal. Any change to traffic flows takes time to bed down as traffic diverts and dissipates across a broad area. TFL is monitoring traffic levels and will take remedial action where necessary. Of course, there is another side to the story. The release of southbound capacity within the tunnel has had a beneficial impact on traffic conditions north of the river.

It is not for the Government to defend the individual operational decisions that TFL and the police make. I agree with hon. Members that TFL might have engaged more effectively with stakeholders, including hon. Members, and might have given earlier warning of the termination of the tidal flow. However, once the decision to withdraw the tidal flow had been made by TFL, the police took the view that there was no alternative but to implement that decision without delay. That unfortunately meant that TFL was unable to communicate the decision widely, as had been planned.

I understand that TFL has offered concerned Members of the House, as well as local councillors, the chance to be briefed in detail on the decision to end the tidal flow system. I can assure all hon. Members that the concerns that they expressed this evening will be raised directly with Transport for London, which I know will be paying close attention to the debate.

I thank the Minister for the care that she has taken with her reply. Can she confirm that there was no impediment to Transport for London, had it so chosen, placing in the public domain any of the information that it received from the police, which the hon. Lady has helpfully given us?

I regret that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman such an assurance. The point that I am trying to convey is that there was no lack of will on the part of TFL, but that it acted for operational reasons. It is conscious of the fact that it did not involve hon. Members and others, as it would have liked. I am keen to ensure that I draw to the attention of TFL all the concerns that have been voiced in the House this evening.

To conclude, continuing a system that TFL, on advice from the Metropolitan police, believed to be inherently dangerous would have been irresponsible. It is not for the Government to second-guess this decision. It was rightly a matter for those two bodies to determine. However, I can give the assurance that the Government will, of course, continue to liaise with TFL on the matter, and I shall take a personal interest in it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Seven o’clock.