Skip to main content

Transport Management: Kent

Volume 594: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2015

It is a pleasure to have the debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am bringing before the House the issue of gridlock in Dover recently and the wider problems on the M20 and A20 through Kent.

The most pressing matter for my constituents is the gridlock in Dover. In January and February 2015, and indeed today, Dover has been experiencing a serious rise in gridlock on the roads through and into the town. Tailbacks and gridlock have been a constant problem for many years, but they have become more serious recently. They have the following effects: residents are unable to travel around my constituency or Kent in general; local businesses are hurt as visitors stay away or cannot access businesses in the town; access for emergency vehicles is restricted, as is access altogether to some parts of Dover, in particular for the long-suffering residents of Aycliffe; and vast amounts of rubbish and litter are left along the A20 by the drivers of parked heavy goods vehicles. Some of that rubbish is unhealthy or contaminated waste and does not belong on a roadside.

To give an idea of the gravity of the problem, a number of my constituents have got in touch to tell me their experiences over the past few months. On 20 December, Mr and Mrs Brown, residents of Dover, wrote to me:

“Dover has been gridlocked with lorries and traffic travelling to the Port constantly for 3 weeks. I dread to think what the fumes from the continuous running of the static engines are doing to our health, let alone the use of our streets as lavatories”.

On 15 January 2015, Rohan Sootarsing, a resident of Guston, wrote:

“Every night this week my usual 20/30 minute drive home from work has taken nearly two hours.”

Mr Parsons, a resident of Martin Mill, wrote to me on 20 January:

“I have taken nearly 3 hours to complete a road journey that would normally be completed in 25 minutes. There was a backlog of HGVs that started at Capel and continued to the docks. This area of the A20 was gridlocked entirely due to trucks blocking both carriageways.”

Mr Dowley of Capel-le-Ferne wrote to me on 24 January about the M20 between Dover and Capel:

“On 21st January numerous lorries were parked, without lights, on the hard shoulder. On 24th January on the M20 heading west, 15 articulated lorries were parked on the hard shoulder”.

On 30 January Mr Terry, a local businessman, wrote to me:

“I run a business in Snargate Street and the continual queuing of lorries is having a seriously detrimental effect on it. The Harbour Board Police block the roundabouts to prevent the lorries from cutting into the queue, but this also prevents us from getting into Snargate Street”.

Mr Wilson, another local businessman, wrote on 5 February:

“Last evening after leaving work I had to drive up the A20 to Capel-le-Ferne to get back into Dover via the B2011. An extra 7 miles or so on my journey home”.

On 11 February a Mr Williams wrote:

“Roundabout is blocked, and fire service answering a call at the school could not get past traffic”.

This morning Mr Dodd, a resident of Aycliffe, which is again cut off today, wrote:

“Lorries are backed up on the A20 and both lanes are blocked. The first roundabout at South Military Road to Aycliffe and lorries are continuously blocking the entrances and exit”.

This morning the chairman of community group Castle Forum, Denise Smith, wrote to me:

“Local and regular disruption happens many times a week and is not caused by extreme events, but by volume of freight traffic not being processed and taken into the docks. Therefore we would like to make it clear that this request is NOT about Op Stack but about Operation Open-Dover.”

I hope to set out the situation that my residents and constituents have to face and put up with constantly. The causes include, first of all, simply, economic growth—our long-term economic plan is working, and all too well for the port of Dover. The rise of international trade is greater than economic growth. In the past year freight traffic has risen 10% and it is forecast to grow further. So the problem is structural and it will not go away; it will become more serious unless action is taken.

There is also a structural problem around Dover, with restrictions on the flow of traffic through the town and the lack of space in the port zone causing gridlock. Poor management of one-off problems such as the fire in the Channel tunnel not so long ago, and Dover port ferries being away on maintenance because there have been problems, have contributed to the situation, as has a lack of investment by the Dover Harbour Board and ferry companies in IT systems or advance check-in for the management of inbound lorries. I want to focus on advance check-in as a way to deal with the problem through a longer-term, sustainable solution.

The first of my proposed solutions therefore is that Ministers treat this as a national strategic priority. The traffic situation facing Dover should be such a priority and the Minister, who has responsibility for roads, is best placed to lead on finding a solution, in particular because he has been the most proactive and energetic roads Minister on the matter in the past 20 years.

Recently, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who is in his place, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who regrets that she cannot be with us today, and my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), met with the roads Minister. It was great to see the difficulties being encountered taken up with such alacrity, for which all of us in Kent are extremely grateful. We urge the Minister to go further and to take the situation on as a specific national strategic priority.

My second solution is the necessary advance check-in system. The eastern docks have only 1,000 spaces, but with a park further up the motorway of 1,000 spaces, for example, we could do advance check-in and the sorting of lorries there, then stream them into the docks so that they can move swiftly through the port zone and on to the ferries for departure to the continent. That sort of dedicated lorry park for advance check-in before the lorries arrive at the port should be implemented as a priority.

It is ridiculous that lorries can simply head into Dover irrespective of whether there is space for them or a ferry is available. The issue needs to be dealt with and a site near Folkestone with the possibility of 1,000 spaces has been identified. Shepway district council tells me that it is keen to give planning permission for up to 1,000 spaces. The proposal is supported by the people I have spoken to in Dover and Deal, with a measure of consensus throughout east Kent and among the long-suffering residents along the M20.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As he has acknowledged, the problem is not only a Dover one. My constituents in Ashford and many other people throughout Kent or passing through to do business find the clogging up of the motorways to be unacceptable, in particular during Operation Stack. Does he agree that the solution, as he is beginning to set out, is a series of lorry parks around both the M20 and the M2? A consensus Kent proposal to put to the Minister is now essential, so that we may facilitate his great desire to help us.

I completely agree. There needs to be a consensus solution. All of us are finding and building that consensus. More places for lorries to park at the tunnel and indeed the docks are welcome, but they are still constrained and not enough given the growth in international trade. A thousand spaces around Folkestone, at the site that has been identified as a leading candidate, would be a start, but it is not enough. We need to look at other lorry parks—not one mega-park, but a number of parks down the M20. In particular, we need to look at Detling; the Kent County Show ground offers great potential for a park to be used in Operation Stack. I will come on to that, as Operation Stack is less frequent than the literally nightly gridlock my constituents suffer.

My proposal is to have an advance check-in lorry park at Folkestone, which would clear Dover of the queues of lorries blocking the town centre and causing tailbacks. That would improve access to residential areas such as Aycliffe, where the long-suffering residents long to get out of their area and not be jammed in by lorries. Port and ferry companies need to work together to invest in advance check-in lorry parks; they should do their bit by taking responsibility for the problems that they contribute to. They need to invest in their IT to bring it up to date in time for the exit checks that will come in shortly.

Funding could also be provided through the HGV road user levy, which has raised over £23 million to date. Funding for lorry parking of £3 million has already been won from central Government through the local enterprise partnership. To that could be added another £5 million that the LEP has won to facilitate the expansion of the port. Port expansion should be conditional on there being lorry parking capacity so that lorries can go into the port zone and on to ferries.

My next solution is more proactive policing. Both Kent police and the Port of Dover police need to take more effective action to ensure that traffic is managed more effectively and more speedily whenever there is short-term disruption at the port and the channel tunnel. The police need to clamp down on illegal HGV parking to ensure that lorries do not cause gridlock or access problems to Dover. Kent county council ought to consider issuing traffic orders under section 1 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to turn the A20 into a clearway, where no parking is allowed. It should also look at weight restrictions on outside lanes and other measures that could be used to ease congestion on the A20 and M20. Such measures are taken elsewhere, so we could do it at Dover as well.

I turn now to the related but separate issue of Operation Stack. Since 2010, it has come into effect four times, so effectively, on average, once a year. When it happens it is serious and problematic. That is why, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford rightly says, there need to be further lorry parks further up the motorway, rather than the M20 being turned into a gigantic car park, which is what happens at the moment. When Operation Stack is in place the motorway in effect becomes single lane, causing congestion and massive difficulties throughout Kent. We need extra lorry parks further up the M20.

Finally, I turn to my requests to the Minister. First, will he agree to make this matter a national strategic priority and to take the lead on the issue in his capacity as roads Minister? Secondly, will he give an update on the progress of the review seeking long-term solutions to the problem? Thirdly, will he agree to support, if only in principle, a request made to Kent county council to introduce a clearway through the A20 by a traffic order? Finally, will he look to provide funding for the advance check-in lorry park, either from Government funds, from LEP funds or by leaning on the port and ferry companies so that they understand their need to take responsibility and to do their bit? That way we can bring forward the investment needed to ensure that traffic can move swiftly throughout Kent.

As well as being roads Minister, the Minister has had responsibility for ports, and has been instrumental, as a people’s champion, in bringing forward a people’s port at Dover, for which I thank and praise him. There is a real opportunity to extend that further by ensuring that people in Dover and across Kent are more able to go about their daily business, to enjoy their lives, to bear less of the burden of our centre of international trade, transport and commerce and to enjoy more of its benefits, for the future economic prosperity of Kent and of Britain.

I have not served under your stewardship very frequently, Mrs Main, so it is a particular delight to do so, certainly for me; I hope it will be for you, as well. It is also a pleasure to respond to the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). We have met a number of times about Kent issues, including about the port of Kent, which is closely connected to our considerations today. We have also met about road traffic issues in Kent. He is right to draw attention to the meeting I held with a number of Kentish Members, including him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who is in his place.

Ruskin said:

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it but what they become by it.”

In those terms, the assiduity of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover—his labour in representing the interests of his constituents—has turned him into a powerful advocate, an impressive campaigner and a sagacious voice in this House. I listen to him carefully about all such matters.

Before I respond to the specific points my hon. Friend has raised, it is perhaps worth me setting those comments in the context of the Government’s wider view about the strategic road network. I will speak about the questions he has raised, and I think I have good news for him, but I do not want to deliver that until the end of my speech, because otherwise I will blunt the excitement that is already beginning to percolate through the Chamber.

Let me instead say a few words about a subject that is almost equally as exciting—there are those who would say it is more exciting, but I am not prepared to say that in a debate on Kent, which, as my hon. Friend and others know, is very dear to my heart. The strategic road network matters for all kinds of reasons. Its strategic importance can barely be overstated. The arterial routes by which goods are moved around and businesses do business are vital to our economic well-being and to the success of our long-term economic plan, to which he drew the Chamber’s attention. Less frequently argued for, although of equal importance, is the effect that our roads have on societal interests—communal well-being and individual opportunities. The ability to get to where we need to go, whether for jobs, for public services or simply for recreational travel, plays an important part in all our lives and can enhance them or do the opposite.

Traffic congestion and any compromises on road safety do damage, so it is vital that the Government take seriously the considerations that my hon. Friend has brought to our attention, and also take seriously our duty—I use the word advisedly, as it is more than a responsibility—to plan carefully for the development of our strategic road network.

I think I can say without hyperbole that this Government have done exceptionally well in those terms, with the biggest road building programme of my adult lifetime—that illustrates how very young I am—and a strategic plan that in scale and character is genuinely impressive. There has been investment of £15.3 billion with schemes across the country that, when gauged in cost-benefit terms, on an empirical basis are as impressive as anything we have ever seen, and money following that strategy.

To forward-commit funds to a road investment programme of this scale is not something that Governments have typically done. Our statement of 26 June 2013 announcing the conclusion of the Government’s 2013 spending review made it clear that there would be a step change in road investment. Our more recent work, at the end of last year, with the publication of our road investment strategy, gave life to that investment plan. The plan will take us through to 2020-21, deliver improvements and put us on a path to achieving our long-term vision.

The scheme to improve our major roads will have a long-lasting and wide-ranging effect, but, as we discussed when we debated the Infrastructure Bill, which I was honoured to take through the House, I was determined that the Government should amend their thinking—I like to bring fresh thinking to all the jobs that I do in government—to include a legislative requirement to take into account route strategies. They should take into account the plans of local highways authorities for the roads that adjoin the main arterial routes in places such as Kent, Lincolnshire and elsewhere, because it seems to me that we can improve the major roads, but unless we take account of the roads that feed them and that are fed by them, the character of the investment and the nature of the improvements that I have described will not be fully realised. So, it is through the route strategies that we will ensure there are operational investment priorities for all routes on the strategic road network, which are consistent and coherent in as much as they involve those more local plans.

The Kent corridors to the M25 that encompass the area we are discussing, for the period up to March 2021, will be included in the strategy. The Highways Agency published a set of evidence reports developed directly from the work that we have done, and a number of routes in Kent are being considered as part of that work. Those studies are being finalised, and the Highways Agency aims to publish the second part of the route strategy shortly, which will include a number of schemes in Kent.

As part of the spending round in June 2013, the Government committed to funding the M20 junction 10A scheme, subject to finalisation of options and agreement being reached on developer contributions. The existing M20 junction 10 south of Ashford, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford knows, suffers from congestion and delays, especially in peak periods, mainly due to conflict between strategic and local traffic. That is precisely why the relationship between the route strategies and our road investment plan is so vital. Improved access to and from the motorway via the proposed junction 10A is seen as a key part of delivering the proposed development in Ashford. As my right hon. Friend has made clear a number of times, the development in Ashford, which is substantial—31,000 homes and 28,000 jobs—will, under the local plan and the growth area agenda, lead to significant extra demand on the road network there.

In November, we changed the charging method of one of the worst performing parts of the strategic road network anywhere in the country, the Dartford-Thurrock crossing, leading to an immediate improvement in the performance of the crossing. I know that this is only a medium-term measure to alleviate the congestion that previously afflicted the crossing. In the longer term, a new Lower Thames crossing is needed to provide additional capacity. Without going into detail, the House will want to know that we are considering options. We are listening to local stakeholders, and we will say more about that in the next Parliament when the Government, led by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and in which I will play a central and vital role, will, I hope, be able to put into operation an exciting new scheme there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover raised specific issues and I will deal with them in the way that he asked me to. He has, as other Kentish MPs have, made a strong case for Operation Stack. When Operation Stack is in place, great disruption and inconvenience are caused to the citizens of Kent, and we need to find a long-term solution. I hear what he and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford say about there not being a single solution. There is a strong argument for a series of measures across the county, which alleviate the congestion that arises from those occasional but none the less important happenings that were described.

When I had the meeting that included my hon. Friends the Members for Dover and for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), the point was made to me that a regional solution was required precisely because the reverberating effect—the ripple effect—was so significant. Any solution must include managing the traffic better and minimising the effects of traffic as increased numbers of vehicles use the network. The proposal that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover makes regarding the use of Stop 24 in Folkestone as an advance check-in for Dover port is interesting and it will be given further consideration. I give him that undertaking today.

I recognise that Operation Stack must be a last, not first, resort and that the solutions are likely to include a mix of private and public sector actions. I commend all parties involved in this work for taking on this difficult task. I expect the public to see a real difference in the coming months and weeks. The issue has plagued the people of Kent intermittently for many years, and the Government have resolved to ensure it is addressed.

However, Operation Stack is a last resort, not a first resort. I want to see long-term solutions proposed and steps taken to prevent Operation Stack from being needed in the first place. The Government recognise the value of the port of Dover and Eurotunnel to the national and local economies, but we need to ensure that the communities of Kent are not inconvenienced by them. Those involved need to understand that, too, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover suggested.

I will deal now with the exciting news that I promised. In principle, the Government could, through a traffic order, support any request made to Kent county council to introduce a clearway along the A20. That is something my hon. Friend has asked for. He made his case responsibly and clearly, and it is something I am keen to take forward. I understand that the A20 is a Highways Agency road, not a Kent county council road, and it would put the traffic order in place. However, I have been advised that the creation of a clearway would not necessarily solve all the problems of traffic queuing on the A20.

On the advance check-in lorry park at Stop 24, as my hon. Friend has suggested, this could be done through revenue raised through the HGV road user levy. I am not a great supporter of hypothecation, as I know he is not, either, because we have talked about that on other occasions in other forums. None the less, I think we would need the Department to take action alongside, as he has also suggested, the port and ferry companies to develop a funding strategy for investment in traffic management in the Dover area. We will continue those discussions, but I think we will do more than that.

As my hon. Friend says, we need to look at IT systems. We certainly need to look at lorry parks, and I will ensure that the various groups looking into the issue of traffic management in Kent take his proposal into close consideration. I am prepared to make funding available for this. I will say more than that. There are additional measures emanating from a different Department, which will have an effect on traffic movements in the near term, so we cannot afford to let the grass grow under our feet. We need a solution that will ensure that those additional measures that emanate from Government do not have a deleterious effect on the interests of the people of Dover and other parts of Kent, or on other people using the port.

We will introduce further proposals as a direct result of those considerations—stimulated by this debate, inspired by my hon. Friend’s commitment, informed by him and other Kentish Members—to address the issues, and I plan to do so before the end of this Parliament. I put this on the record: we will introduce those proposals in good time, in good order and in good shape.

WB Yeats said:

“Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”

My hon. Friend described me in extremely complimentary terms—perhaps even more complimentary than I deserve—but I am the kind of Minister who makes the iron hot by striking.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.