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Dartford River Crossing Tolls

Volume 485: debated on Wednesday 17 December 2008

I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss the new charging arrangements at the Dartford river crossing, particularly the recent increases. This subject is very relevant to my current constituents in Hornchurch and those whom I hope to represent, after the next general election, in Old Bexley and Sidcup. As a user of the crossing, I declare an interest.

There were tolls at the crossing before the construction of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge, which opened in 1991. As part of the private finance arrangements for the construction of the bridge, the then Conservative Government promised that when construction costs had been met and an adequate maintenance fund had been established the tolls would cease. That position was reached in April 2003, but the Labour Government decided that a charge should be retained to ease congestion. They promised that the profits raised would be used to fund transport infrastructure improvements, although they did not specify where those improvements would be.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he understand the frustration of my constituents that although Essex helped to pay for the original Dartford tunnel, which was constructed in the 1960s, out of local taxation, local residents are still paying bills? My correspondence with the Government has failed to explain why the charges are increasing, with even more profits flowing to the Government, even though the costs had been covered by April 2003, as he says. Can he explain that?

My hon. Friend makes some relevant points on which I shall expand in my comments. His point about profit is quite relevant because the annual profit since the point at which the costs of the bridge had been paid off has been between £47 million and £52 million. Up until last month, Kent county council received £1 million in extra spending permissions for local transport infrastructure, and Thurrock borough council received £750,000. That has now come to an end.

Was not it a principle of the original tolling charge that everyone paid the same? It is outrageous that my constituents in Swanley should pay an increased charge while those who live in Dartford and Thurrock, which happen to be Labour marginal areas, have most of their journeys completely free.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. That problem is shared by my constituents in the London borough of Havering, many of whom live closer to the crossing than some residents who receive the benefit.

The hon. Gentleman will know that many of my constituents live much closer to the Dartford crossing than many of the residents of Thurrock or Dartford. Is he aware that until recently, when the discount scheme was introduced, Dartford was receiving, through Kent county council, £1 million a year, and Thurrock was receiving £750,000 a year from the tolls for local transport? Would not it have been more equitable for some of those resources to come to Bexley as well?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the use of the £1.75 million that was previously available, which seems to have been traded away for the local discount concession. As I shall go on to explain, I am not sure that a particularly fair trade-off is being created. On 15 November, the revised charging structure was introduced, the impact of which was that the daily cash charge for cars and vans was increased by 50 per cent. from £1 to £1.50, with other increases in cash charges for larger vehicles.

My constituency is Dartford, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but I am not at all in favour of the increased charges, which is why I proposed a reduction for local residents. However, will he clarify one point? He mentioned that the tolls should have been free once the bridge had been paid for; what is his party’s policy on the toll should it come to Government in the future?

I do not speak on behalf of my party on transport issues, so unfortunately I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the answer that he seeks. What we need to hear is the Minister’s answer, because it has been difficult to understand what is the Government’s position on this issue moving forward, on investment in the crossing and on the public spending review.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

In a letter to me of 22 May 2008, the then Minister of State at the Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), confirmed to me that the intention had been to remove the tolls that we were discussing before we crossed from one half of this debate to the other, when the costs of the bridge had been recovered. She added:

“However, traffic levels have risen far faster than projected and work carried out by the Highways Agency has indicated that removal of the toll charges would increase traffic levels by 17 per cent. on 2003 levels.”

I am yet to be convinced that the removal of the tolls would have the impact stated, and I invite the Minister to set out why other solutions could not address the problem. My starting point is that a promise was given when the tolls were introduced, and that without compelling evidence that promise should be honoured.

My hon. Friend will be well aware that I have campaigned for quite some time to get the Government to reconsider the matter. He is making a powerful point about how they have reneged on the understanding that the tolls would be removed when the bridge had been paid for. Of course, the environmental consequences of the build-up of people waiting to pay the toll should also be considered.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is unfair that my constituents in Slade Green, Crayford and Bexleyheath, who live much closer to the Dartford crossing than residents in parts of Thurrock, are discriminated against by not getting a discount?

My hon. Friend points out about the need for basic fairness, in which I believe equally. When considering the charges levied, it is relevant that rather than increase, traffic levels at the crossing have actually fallen in recent years. According to information published on the Highways Agency’s website, the total number of vehicles using the crossing in the 2007-08 financial year was 53.2 million—nearly 400,000 fewer than the previous year and 1.2 million fewer than two years previously. In fact, it was the lowest number for five years. If the number of vehicles is falling, and likely to fall further with the economic slow-down, what justification can the Minister give for increasing the charge now of all times? Vehicle numbers were being reduced under the previous charging arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman is being most generous in giving way. In fact, the removal of the tolls when the bridge was paid for was included in the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Act 1988 itself. It was a very strong promise.

The hon. Gentleman will have received information from the Federation of Small Businesses, and I am sure that he is supporting its campaign in Essex. Does he share its concern and mine that the Government are being less than forthright in providing evidence to show that the toll is anything other than yet another Labour stealth tax?

We will need to hear from the Minister on that point, but certainly the anecdotal evidence is that congestion at the toll booths has got worse, not better, as drivers scrabble around to find the correct change. I was recently told a story about a driver who was struggling to find the correct money for the toll. The motorist behind got out of his car in a slightly aggressive manner, and the driver thought that he would end up in an angry exchange with him, or worse. Instead, the man grumpily gave him 50p and said, “I’m in a hurry.” We could probably all relay stories of similar things happening.

As a sop to residents in the area of the crossing, the Government have introduced a scheme for residents of the Thurrock and Dartford council areas to receive discounts when using the crossing. However, the scheme hardly seems a rip-roaring success, with some reports that as of a month ago, only 6,000 people had registered for it since July. Will the Minister confirm how many people have registered for the benefits of the discount scheme?

More significantly, as we have heard, the discount scheme is arbitrary in its application. A person can live nearly 13 miles away from the bridge in some parts of Thurrock and receive the benefit of the discount scheme, yet a Havering or Bexley resident living much closer simply has to put up with being charged more. As Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, noted in his representation on the plans for the revised charges in the area covered by the discount:

“It is clearly unfair that communities in, for example, Crayford in Bexley (only three miles from the Crossing) are not included within the proposed local discount area, when the residents in Coryton in Thurrock, over ten miles to the east of the crossing are included.”

I could make exactly the same point about people living in Rainham village or Wennington village in my constituency. Tracey Crouch, the Conservative candidate for Chatham and Aylesford, contacted me to point out that if the same distance test were applied, a large part of Medway, on the doorstep of the Minister’s constituency in Gillingham, would be covered.

The tax money will have to come from somewhere if the toll is taken away. Obviously I would like that to happen, but my main concern is the crazy operations management. Why should people from Gravesham or any of the other constituencies represented in the debate have to spend minutes, or large proportions of an hour, waiting? I would say that in the three years that I have been the Member for Gravesham, I have spent at least 20 hours waiting to cross that bridge. Why cannot we have the toll booths on just one side, or something? The Government’s operations management is absolutely appalling, and it is time that something was done about it.

Like my hon. Friend, I have been stuck in the traffic there. Creative ways around that could be thought of, and I know that the FSB has advocated the overhead camera technology used in the London congestion charge. That or other technology could be used more creatively to allow the traffic to flow. I hope that the Minister will take that on board and listen to those representations, and consider whether there are ways to deal more effectively with the charge, if it has to be retained.

I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already, and I would like to make some progress.

We have heard about the lack of ring-fenced funding and the fact that the £1.75 million that had been ring-fenced for certain areas is now to be spread across the country. The Government therefore cannot even argue that that money is being spent to encourage people to use other forms of local transport, which is an argument that has been used in support of other such schemes. Instead of guaranteed funding for local roads and infrastructure, we have a discount scheme that appears to be limited to a small group of people, potentially living up to 20 km away from the bridge. The scheme relates to specific vehicles, meaning that someone with two cars has to pay two registration fees, and its take-up to date appears to have been limited. I say to the Minister that that does not look like much of a concession—it looks more like some sort of con.

We must also consider the impact of the increased charge on small businesses, which are struggling in these increasingly challenging economic times. An Essex-based courier company that I spoke to estimated that the additional charges at the crossing could cost it as much as an extra £5,000 a year. Surely this time of economic downturn and local businesses struggling to keep their heads above water is absolutely the worst time for the Government to give them a further slap in the face by increasing the costs.

In a letter to me of 27 November, the Minister wrote:

“In the longer term we expect demand for the Crossing to continue to grow. The Department for Transport is therefore commissioning a study to look at options for addressing traffic issues in the future. It is due to report around the turn of the year.”

As we are fast approaching the turn of the year, will the Minister provide an update on the nature and progress of that study and tell us what is its brief, who is conducting it, who is giving evidence to it and when it will be published?

The Minister will be aware of current discussions about the long-term future. Essex and Kent county councils have been working on the potential impacts and economic advantages that additional capacity could unlock for the people of those counties, particularly in the context of the Thames Gateway, in which I know he has taken a close interest. Will he commit to work closely with Essex and Kent county councils on the future of the existing river crossing, as well as on considering where any new crossing might be located?

If the Minister is not prepared to remove the toll and believes that some form of charge should be retained, can he confirm that he is prepared to investigate removing the toll booth plaza and introducing a system similar to the one used to enforce the congestion charge zone in central London, with overhead automatic number plate recognition cameras, thus removing the need for vehicles to stop at payment booths and wait for the barrier to rise?

Another question is what other plans the Government might have to realise even more funds from motorists using the crossing. In the recent pre-Budget report, details were provided of the working of the operational efficiency programme. It was stated that it would be

“widening the scope of the study of capacity requirements at the Dartford Crossing to include the potential to realise value for the taxpayers”.

Can the Minister confirm what was meant by that statement, as it gives the unfortunate impression that the Government see the crossing as a cash cow to generate even more revenue for the Exchequer?

In conclusion, Jon Holmes writing in The Sunday Times summed up the current mood well:

“Even the three billy goats gruff didn’t have this sort of hassle when they wanted to get to the other side of their river. Granted, they had to deal with a troll, but he wasn’t demanding £1.50 every time. In fact, when he tried it on once too often, he got butted firmly into the river. Think on that, Dartford Crossing authorities.”

I hope that the Minister will think on that and give hard-pressed motorists, shoppers and small businesses an early Christmas present by scrapping the toll increase and by going back to the drawing board on the charging arrangements at the Dartford river crossing.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) on securing this debate.

As all hon. Members in the Chamber are aware, the Dartford crossing is a vital part of our strategic road network and brings huge benefits to users. However, its success has created some real challenges over the years, and I am conscious that as we have addressed those challenges, some of the complex considerations that we have had to wrestle with have not always been made clear. Therefore, I am delighted at this opportunity to explain the position and to answer questions that have been raised in the debate.

Several Members will be able to remember the early days. The first crossing was a single tunnel built in November 1963. That project was promoted by Kent and Essex county councils. A second tunnel was opened in May 1980, but, in the 1980s, the levels of traffic that we would have to deal with and the substantial increase in capacity that would be needed were becoming clear. Hence, with the building of the M25, the crossing became a key part of the strategic road network, and the Government decided to promote the construction of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge. Control then passed from Kent county council to the Government, and a concession was let for the building of the bridge, which opened in 1991. Under the concession, tolls were charged to pay for the costs of building the bridge, as Members have rightly pointed out.

We also saw a substantial growth in the volume of traffic in the 1990s, which had two effects. First, it increased the revenues that were collected, meaning that the bridge would be paid for sooner than had been expected. Secondly, it raised concerns about what would happen if the tolls were removed, given the increasing volume of traffic.

Let me just say this before I give way: I noted that several Members said that the tolls are creating congestion. I want to deal with that matter, and the effect that removing the tolls would have.

I wish to mention two issues briefly. What about the promise that the tolls would be abolished once the costs had been recovered? Secondly, there is little doubt that the increase in the tolls has created greater congestion. I use that tunnel crossing many times each week, and the increase has added to congestion—it is not helping at all.

I will come to the issue of the charges that were put in place as of 15 November—four weeks ago.

On the position once the bridge had been paid for through the toll, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but would it have been possible in the 1980s to predict the volume of traffic that we have today? Some 53 million people make that crossing each year. Would he have been able to predict at that time the state of the economy, in particular the success and continual growth that we have had, particularly in the regions that we are discussing? I will come to the current downturn in a moment.

We had to make difficult decisions. That is why I said at the beginning of my comments that the consequence of the growth in traffic in the 1980s was a realisation that we needed a further crossing, and that is exactly why the QEII bridge was built.

Following on from that, let me deal with the issue of removing the tolls. All the profiling that we did in 2000 to 2001 showed that if the tolls were removed, there would be an increase of about 17 per cent. in the number of people attempting to use the crossing. Therefore, if one thinks about the approach to the tunnels and the difficulties that occur even now if a vehicle breaks down, they will admit that delay and the congestion that it causes are substantial. If there were no tolls and no plaza, the pollution caused by the number of vehicles trying to get into the entrance would be even greater than it is currently.

I hope that the Minister will acknowledge to the Chamber that, under European directives, riparian crossings can be tolled only if they diminish congestion. That is the only mandate; otherwise, tolls are unlawful. If the present congestion were to endure, presumably the Ministry would have to accommodate that or not be in compliance with European directives.

There is much that I would have liked to say, but my final point is that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) and I learned about the proposal to increase the tolls at the same time as everybody else, from our local press. We did not go ballistic—we went nuclear. Don’t mess with us.

One thing I can certainly agree with is that my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and for Dartford have been the most consistent in arguing their case. In part, that resulted in the discussions that followed and the consultations with residents which led to the residents’ scheme being introduced.

I will give way once more but I want to be able to put answers to the questions on the record.

The Minister may recall that I raised the matter in a speech in this House about seven years ago, and that I have campaigned on it ever since. Why should the people of Essex and north Kent be discriminated against? Why should they be singled out from all the people in this country to collect tolls in order to solve congestion problems or to raise stealth taxes? Surely, if the argument applies there, it should apply for all the similar road areas around the country. We are being discriminated against.

If there are to be road tolls, let us introduce them honestly across the whole country and let everybody pay the same.

With due respect, the hon. Gentleman and, unfortunately, others seem to assume that the road is used by local people only, but it is not. In the first few paragraphs that I had a chance to deliver, I said that it is part of the strategic road network. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that with the M25 on either side, it is part of a critical route. It is not just the people of Kent and Essex who pay for the crossing.

I suspect that most of the people who use the crossing day in and day out would not want the additional delays that undoubtedly would follow if there were a free-for-all. Safety in the tunnel would also be impaired, because another matter that hon. and right hon. Members will be well aware of— [Interruption.] It would be a free-for-all, given the substantial tankers that need to be escorted through the tunnel. That is another management issue that has to be considered for the safety of all drivers and motorists going through the tunnel.

Let me remind Members that the arrangements that were introduced in the Transport Act 2000 and discussed by Parliament gave powers to introduce a charge on the tunnel and the crossing at Dartford. The Act gave us that ability, and it said clearly that any surplus revenues after the costs had been met would go into transport schemes. I accept that transport schemes have benefited on both sides of the river, as have those in other places as well, but that is part of the £2 billion that is going in every year to local transport and regional funding allocations. Kent and Essex have certainly benefited directly.

When the Transport Bill was going through Parliament, the hon. Member for Thurrock and I were assured by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which was responsible, that although this was a congestion charge the revenue that arose from it would be used for investment in local transport infrastructure. We heard earlier that some investment went to Dartford and some went to Thurrock, but not beyond there.

The Minister will know that the Mayor of London has scuppered phase 2 of the Greenwich waterfront transit, which puts in doubt any possibility of phase 3 ever happening—its extension into Bexley, Belvedere, Erith and, perhaps, on to Dartford. Would the Minister consider making some of this revenue available for public transport improvements in the London borough of Bexley?

My hon. Friend will be well aware of substantial funds that are made available through the Department for Transport and of various funding allocations, including through Transport for London and elsewhere—in terms of regional funding—through local transport plans for substantial investment in a number of ways and through various funding streams for those areas falling within the Thames Gateway, which hon. Members have already mentioned. Of course, the Mayor has the powers to make those decisions and he has made them under the powers that we gave through devolved administration.

Anyone who is unaware of the scheme would believe that everyone is paying an increase of 50p on every trip all the time and that they have to do that and have no choice. Hon. Members will know, if they are serious about this matter, that people can obtain the Dart-Tag, with which they can travel across the bridge for the same price as on 14 November, and not have to pay the increase. We want to move far more to people paying less in cash and using a cashless payment system. That is why we have made sure that there are generous concessions and no price increase at all.

In the few minutes remaining, let me say that I too heard the courier who said that it would cost him £5,000 more a year. I do not know the ins and outs of his business in total. He was talking about small vans and so on, the cost for which would have increased to £2. However, if he bought the Dart-Tag for his vehicles that cross regularly it would cost £1.75, which is 5p less for those very vans than on 14 November. It is unrealistic to suggest that everyone is being clobbered by serious increases.

In terms of residents, the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead has just widened the boundary for free travel to the people of Billericay, Sevenoaks, Erith and Thamesmead, Gravesham, Bexleyheath and Castle Point. The point is that this is a congestion charge in place to ensure that the crossing flows as reasonably as possible. Extending the concession further would not be a practical way of dealing with the congestion.

No, I have been very generous in giving way.

Let me deal with one further point relating to the future. It would be wrong for us as a Government to bury our heads in the sand in respect of congestion on the Dartford crossing or wherever. That is why I am more than happy that we work with Essex and Kent, along with our own study in the Department on the possibilities of further crossings, and see how we can manage things in future. That is a long-term programme. It is right that we consider how best to ensure that the people who need to cross at that point can do so in the best and safest way possible. However, we recognise that removing the plaza and tolls and so on, would only lead to further congestion, which would not be good for the constituents of all hon. Members in this Chamber or the people who need to use it as a strategic network.

I give way to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett).