[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered congestion at the Dartford Crossing.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I am pleased to secure this debate on an issue that has dominated road transport in the south-east and beyond: the congestion so often found at the Dartford crossing. Local people have in their thousands signed a petition relating to the issue, and that has prompted a response from the Government. I do not believe, however, that it is right to wait for the number of signatories to reach the 100,000 trigger point for a debate in the House, so I am pleased to have secured a debate today.
The tunnels have caused problems in the area for pretty much all my life. It is fair to say that there was a period of respite when the bridge was built, but that was back in 1991, and the problems have grown ever since. In Dartford, we believed that there would be further respite when the tollbooths were finally removed but, alas, that has not been the case. Today we have congestion like I have never known before.
Quite simply, the approach to the Dartford crossing is Britain’s worst stretch of road. I challenge the Roads Minister to name one stretch of road in the UK that is worse than the Dartford crossing approach. It will be interesting to see whether he can come up with a single road in the whole United Kingdom that can compare. The congestion has a huge impact on local residents. Children cannot be picked up from school and people cannot get to work or home from work. People say to me that often it is like being a prisoner in their own home. Businesses are also affected, particularly those on Crossways Boulevard. If the congestion continues, it will ultimately cost Dartford hundreds of jobs.
We have a growing economy. London and the south-east are envied around the world for their wealth creation. The south-east provides not just thousands but millions of new jobs. It is very much the financial engine of the country, but the whole area is held back by Britain’s worst stretch of road. It is pointless to have a financial engine if the tyres are punctured. As the Prime Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), we cannot secure inward investment for Kent unless we have a modern road system. That applies as much to the A249, which my hon. Friend asked about in Prime Minister’s questions, as it does to the Dartford crossing.
The congestion is not only a transport issue; it also leads to pollution. The pollution created at the Dartford crossing is nothing short of a national disgrace. It is both noise pollution and air pollution. According to Public Health England, a staggering 6.7% of the deaths in Dartford are at least partly attributable to long-term exposure to human-caused particle air pollution. In other words, more people die from air pollution in Dartford than anywhere else in Kent or Essex. The figure is the second highest in the whole south-east, behind only Slough, which is of course home to Heathrow airport. The worst area in the east of the country is Thurrock, and we know where the Dartford crossing links up to. Why should the people of Dartford be subjected to such high levels of pollution? Why should the health of people in Dartford be put at risk by the road scheme?
The congestion at the Dartford crossing will be properly dealt with only when we have another crossing in the lower Thames area. In my opinion, that crossing should be located away from Dartford and east of Gravesend if it is to provide a proper alternative for the motorist. I shudder to think of the problems that will be caused if another crossing was to be built at Dartford.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and echo some of his comments, particularly on air pollution in Thurrock. I am privileged to represent parts of that area. He talks about an additional crossing east of the existing crossing. Does he agree that both options A and C answer a question that was posed 10 years ago? We should broaden the debate and potentially look further east, and west into London, to resolve the issues.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I pay tribute to his campaigning on behalf of his constituents on transport links in Basildon and Thurrock. As I understand it, the Mayor of London continues to assess the alternatives to the Blackwall tunnel, and that work is ongoing.
With the Dartford crossing, I argue that options D, E and F have been assessed previously and have been properly looked at. We are left with options A and C. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) is a vociferous opponent of any crossing east of Gravesend. I disagree with that stance; I believe that there needs to be that alternative for the motorist, but we need a decision. We need something to be built as soon as possible, because the current situation is completely untenable.
Would my hon. Friend accept that any crossing east of the Dartford crossing would have to take account of the existing problems on the M2 and the A2?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I would add the M20. It has been years—I cannot remember it happening in my lifetime—since we have seen any major improvements on the M20, A20, M2 or A2. It is high time that we had some road improvements in the county of Kent. We have increasing levels of traffic coming from the port at Dover through to the east of England and round to ports such as Harwich. Kent is being used as a thoroughfare. There are too many pinch points and too many roads that simply cannot cope with the amount of traffic that we have. A garden city is being built in my constituency. We have population growth throughout the county, which in many ways is welcome, but we must have the infrastructure to match that, and a crucial part of that infrastructure is investment in our road network, because the local roads simply cannot cope with the demands of the levels of traffic.
On whether there should be a crossing at Gravesham or Dartford, my argument is that another crossing at Dartford would give us years of roadworks. As a consequence, we would have more traffic squeezed into what is already a pinch point. It would be nothing short of a disaster for the town.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. It strikes me that we need to fix the appalling problem at Dartford—I was not aware of the awful statistics he mentioned on respiratory illnesses—but is not the answer, therefore, to fix the problem at Dartford, rather than unnecessarily create a whole range of problems for 20,000 people to the east of Gravesend?
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham and I disagree on this. Understandably, he wants a crossing, but not in his constituency, and I fully understand the reasons why. My argument is that if we had another crossing east of Gravesend, we would see far less of the stationary traffic that creates the most pollution. It is estimated that 30% of the traffic currently using the Dartford crossing would move east of Gravesham, where there would be another crossing, giving not only relief to Dartford but an alternative for the motorist. If we insist on having just one crossing point at Dartford, no matter how wide we make it, it puts so much pressure on the roads in the area that they will not be able to cope. One single problem on the M25 at Dartford can cause mayhem in the area. We need an alternative. Unless we have that alternative, there will always be problems at Dartford.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that the reason for the northbound back-up is that we have a tunnel bore? According to Highways Agency staff, the problem is caused by dangerous goods vehicles backing up. It takes seven minutes to reverse one. Should he not concentrate on fixing the problems at Dartford, rather than creating problems for people living elsewhere?
HGVs that are too high and need to turn round do cause problems with delays in that area—
It is the problem.
It is not the only problem.
It is the main one.
The existing tunnels were designed for roughly 140,000 vehicles a day, and anything up to 170,000 vehicles currently use them. Inevitably, according to the laws of physics, there will be congestion at certain times going through the existing Dartford tunnel. So we have two options. We either build a crossing further away from Dartford to give motorists an alternative, or we put another crossing next to the existing one, putting an increasing amount of pressure on local roads that cannot cope at the moment. If we put more traffic there, even after the roadworks are finished we will have even more problems.
That is the point. If my hon. Friend wants to protect his constituents from respiratory problems, he has to have a way of stopping those great build-ups at Dartford. Of course the multi-billion-pound answer is to build another crossing, but another bridge at Dartford going northbound will help his constituents much more quickly.
Even if we had 100 crossings at Dartford, we would still rely on a small geographical area that would inevitably be a pinch point. The only solution is to have another crossing east of Gravesham. I struggle to think of organisations outside of Gravesham that believe Dartford is the best location for another crossing. The organisations I have spoken to—outside of Gravesham—agree that there should be a crossing elsewhere and an alternative for the motorist. That is the way forward and it is the only way in which we will see real relief from the problems we have today.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and being so generous with his time. Does he accept that the danger with his approach of championing a crossing east of the current crossing is that we will still experience air pollution at the existing crossing and create a new area of air pollution to the east potentially coming into my constituency? Because both options A and C land in Thurrock, we will end up with pollution both in the west and the east of the borough. Would it not be better to move some of this to a wider extent and not concentrate it in south Essex?
My argument is that if all the traffic uses one area, it inevitably leads to traffic hold-ups and increased pollution. The best way of dealing with pollution in an area is to relieve the congestion. The only way to properly relieve congestion in north Kent is to have another crossing away from Dartford—east of Gravesend —that gives motorists an alternative and ensures there is less chance than we have now of the horrific jams that we so regularly see in that area.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate today. My constituents complain continuously about the tunnel and congestion. They also think the charges are a tax on local businesses in the south-east. Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever option is put forward, we need a real strategic view and a project that suits north Kent’s development over the next 20 years and meets our needs? We are an important part of the UK and any project must be suitable for the future—not just for now—and not simply solve a problem in the short term.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. That is why option C ensures that the vehicles using the M20 are able to access the Thames. We must take into account the growth in population in the area. I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Lady has put in for her constituency. I know that the problems with the Dartford crossing affect her constituents, a number of whom have contacted me. I pay tribute to the work that she has put in on their behalf to help alleviate some of the problems that they have had, particularly using the Dart Charge system.
I need to make progress; I am aware that the Minister will have limited time to respond. I will focus on the small part of Dartford where a lot of the problems are caused—the roundabouts at junction 1A and the Bluestar roundabout at junction 1B. These need a major overhaul and greater enforcement of the vehicles that block traffic on the roundabouts. Highways England correctly points out that that is an issue for Kent County Council. We therefore look to those organisations together to tackle the issues.
I recently held a round-table summit for all authorities with responsibility for the crossing. Both Kent County Council and Highways England know that the current situation is untenable, and that they need to find a solution. Congestion is also caused at the slip road from Bob Dunn Way, which causes huge problems for the people who live on an estate called The Bridge, which is adjacent to that road. If Kent County Council is unresponsive to requests made by Highways England, it should make that publicly known. Kent County Council must work with Highways England to find a solution to the problems that we currently face.
The new road layout was put in place to facilitate the free-flow system that saw the back of the tollbooths. I still maintain that it was right to remove the tollbooths, but the road layout simply has not worked. The Dart Charge system is riddled with administrative errors and incompetency. Hardly a day goes by—I am sure this is the case for my colleagues in Kent and in Essex—when I am not approached by a motorist who has been wrongly or unfairly given a penalty notice. I do not want any tolls on the crossings in the area, but where they exist motorists have a right to have confidence in the tolling system. The London congestion charge rarely makes a mistake, but the same cannot be said about Sanef, the company that runs the Dart Charge system. Will the Minister look again at withholding payments to Sanef until it can rectify the mistakes it frequently makes?
I anticipate that the Minister will claim, on behalf of Highways England, that journey times have improved since the new road system was put in place. I do not dispute that traffic flow has improved from Essex into Kent. However, it is hard to find anyone in Kent who thinks that journey times the other way round have improved. Highways England claims that journey times northbound have improved by five minutes. However, that calculation is obtained purely by measuring traffic flows for just 1.5 miles before the tunnel entrance, compared with 6.5 miles approaching Kent from Essex. Why the difference between the two? It seems that the figures have been taken to obtain the most favourable outcomes. I hope that this is not simply a case of cherry-picking. Why not measure from the same distance northbound and southbound? Parliamentary answers today show that such figures are not available.
In conclusion, Highways England has accepted that it needs to do more, and I agree. The approach to the Dartford crossing is a hellish, unpredictable nightmare for motorists. The crossing strangles the town of Dartford and causes misery and anger. It damages both the economy and the health of the local area and must be improved as a priority. The road layout needs a major overhaul. Britain’s worst stretch of road needs to be given priority by both Highways England and the Department for Transport. It is essential that everybody who has been stuck in jams at the crossing hears that action will be taken to improve the situation in advance of a new crossing being built.
Before you start, Minister, I apologise for the short time you have to respond. I thought it was important that the local Members had a chance to participate in the debate and get their message across.
Thank you very much, Sir Alan. We need to ensure that local Members’ voices are heard—I have absolutely no problem with that and will rattle through what I have to say. The need to champion the constituencies in the area, recognise the problems and seek answers has come across very strongly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this debate on an issue that is incredibly important to him. We have discussed it on previous occasions, and he is a vigorous local champion and continues to highlight the issue. It will be no surprise for him to hear that we agree on many of the issues he has raised. He has played an important role in bringing people together locally, and I hope that, as that work continues, I will be able to offer support, and that we will be able to work together and count on each other’s mutual support as we make progress and develop solutions.
The crossing consists of two bored tunnels for northbound traffic and a bridge for southbound traffic. It was initially built as a tunnel 50 years ago to provide a link between Kent and Essex, and provides the only road-based river crossing east of London. It is a link in the M25, which is used by many to orbit or bypass the capital, as well as a connection to several strategic radial routes. As my hon. Friend said, since it was originally built, the area has seen enormous growth. The M25 has been constructed, as have the Lakeside and Bluewater shopping centres. Traffic levels have increased, including freight, and the crossing provides connections to a host of international gateways in the south-east, including the port of London, the Medway ports, the port of Dover and the channel tunnel.
The incremental upgrades that have been made as growth has occurred have led to a layout ill-suited to the needs of today’s traffic. The crossing is now one of the busiest stretches of road in the country. I cannot say that it is the worst road in the country, because I am afraid to say I have heard that accusation from many colleagues in this place, but I can certainly agree that it is a real problem, so we have to work together to find a solution. The Dartford crossing is hugely busy, with more than 50 million vehicle crossings each year, and it has been operating well above its design capacity for years.
When incidents occur, the consequences for the road network are severe. Delays can take a long time to clear, meaning that road users have to endure unreliable journeys. There are typically more than 300 unplanned lane closures every year. When the crossing closes, users have no choice but to wait it out, use the Blackwall tunnel, or take the long way around the M25, all of which are unacceptable options. Such resilience issues will worsen until we build on the actions we have taken recently and get the planning right for future capacity.
The free-flow system has been mentioned a number of times in the debate. Until recently, the road layout on the south shore of the crossing broadened out to multiple lanes to accommodate toll booths and then merged back into four lanes in each direction. The new arrangements, known as free-flow charging, require remote payment of the Dart Charge. Drivers no longer need to stop to pay at a barrier, and there is no need for multiple lanes to merge back in. The new arrangements have reduced journey times, although I recognise the concerns that my hon. Friend has about the accuracy of the data. I will pass them on to Highways England and ask it to write back. I will then forward the reply to him. The latest data from Highways England show that journeys are now on average a third faster than before the new system was introduced. Those traveling from the north to the south are saving almost 7 minutes, which is a reduction in journey times of around 36%. Less positively, for those traveling from south of the river the journey time saving is around 3 minutes per trip, which is much smaller.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to be a lot more creative if we are to rescue the people of Dartford and prevent the blight on 15,000 homes? We have to think about things such as using the tunnel for local traffic and anticipating the huge future effects of driverless cars. We also need to do pretty straightforward things such as running freight trains—rather than unloading them all at Dover, we should let them run north.
I entirely agree that creative approaches are required. We will need to take a number of approaches, because there is no single, silver-bullet answer to this question. If I have time, I will discuss some of these issues shortly.
After several months of close working, in December, Highways England made proposals to both Kent County Council and Dartford Borough Council to make better use of technology, such as signalling and signs. The proposals have been with Kent County Council for a short period, and a response is due in the next few days. In addition to that partnership, I hope data sharing will help both authorities to agree strategies to help traffic moving between the local network, which is controlled by Kent County Council, and the strategic network, which is run by Highways England. I expect decisions to be made and improvements in place by February. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has supported the initiative through his work to bring all parties to the table, and I hope he will be pleased with the results as it develops.
Highways England is working hard to improve the traffic safety system, which meters traffic if congestion is backed up on the other side of the tunnel to prevent the dangerous build-up of traffic inside the tunnel. Nevertheless, I agree with my hon. Friend that there are still unacceptable levels of congestion at the crossing, caused by the limits to its capacity and driven by the extreme growth in traffic. More needs to be done. That “more” is the development of a lower Thames crossing. From the debate today and the conversations I have had with colleagues, I recognise that a new crossing is not going to be an easy option. There will perhaps be some difficulty in getting everyone aligned behind it, but I have no doubt that we need to get it in place.
The Dartford crossing’s capacity has been exceeded. In July and August 2015, the bridges and tunnels carried 20,000 more crossings a day than they were designed for. Dart Charge is at best a medium-term solution to the capacity challenges. The 2011 national infrastructure plan named a new lower Thames crossing as a top-40 project. Successive Governments have investigated the need for additional crossing capacity in the lower Thames area and where to locate it. The Government are committed to delivering the investment required for a new lower Thames crossing in the next road investment period. Highways England is currently concluding its examination of routes at the two remaining location options: a further crossing near the existing Dartford-Thurrock crossing, or a new link further east to connect the A2/M2 with the A13. There would be many benefits to a new lower Thames crossing, some of which have already been articulated during the course of the debate, but the decision is very important and will affect thousands of people, so it is vital that we get it right.
On the administration of the Dart Charge scheme, Sanef’s performance is of concern to colleagues. I have called Sanef in to meet me at the Department to highlight our concerns. Complaint levels are at their lowest to date, but I will continue to monitor the situation and ensure that the feedback from colleagues present is delivered back to Highways England, Sanef and Kent County Council. Local service providers are working together, and I guarantee my support for finding solutions to make the situation better. I will do all I can to support them and local Members. The situation is very challenging. It is driven by growth and capacity constraints. We can take some short and medium-term measures to improve the situation, but a long-term measure in the form of increased capacity via a new crossing is the only answer that will make a significant difference.
Question put and agreed to.