Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Heather Wheeler.)
I am extremely sorry that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) did not get his way and see the previous debate continue for a further three hours, because that would have given me time to actually write a speech. It is a bit of a disaster, but I am sure that my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) will be delighted.
You’ve got three hours, Adam.
I’ll need all of it.
This debate has been rather boringly entitled “M25: Dartford” but this is not a boring subject at all—I and my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford, for Thurrock and for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) have been looking at this for several years. What we do about another Thames crossing will affect tens of millions of journeys over the next 30 years. Drivers up and down the country, in Kent and Essex, Dartford and Thurrock, are being affected by the appalling congestion at Dartford.
To a very considerable degree, this debate is also about the appalling situation facing the residents of Dartford. As my dear friend—my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford—put it in his speech in January, this is quite simply the worst stretch of road in the UK, and it has a huge impact on local residents, who are now prisoners in their own homes. Children are not getting picked up from school on time. He called it
“congestion like I have never known before.”—[Official Report, 13 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 388WH.]
I completely agree. It really is a national disgrace.
It is an appalling logistical travesty for people living in the area, who are being subjected to pollution as they go about their everyday lives—my hon. Friend is very good on the numbers and the impact of pollution on his constituents. In addition, there is gridlock, as well as frustration that for years Governments have done nothing about it. I imagine that that there is nobody listening to this debate—none from among the huge crowds of people here in the Chamber—who has not experienced what a disaster area this is. We can all agree that this is a kind of traffic-induced nightmare.
As the House will be aware, the Government are a hair’s breadth from approving gigantic spending on a new lower Thames crossing to the east of Gravesend, under what is known as option C. Back in 2009, the original aim was increased capacity at Dartford to get as many vehicles across at 50 mph and to get everything moving again. Then we had several other options, including: option B, now dropped because of the proposed theme park at Swanscombe; option C, to the east of Gravesend, which we will hear more about; and options D and E, further down the river.
I did not understand until recently the reason for the appalling congestion. If we imagine the River Thames and the wonderful towns of Thurrock to the north and Dartford to the south, we will notice that the M25 goes straight through both places. At the moment, we have two tunnels, one very good, one very poor, going from south to north, and a great big bridge running north to south. The problems of congestion tend to be in Dartford because heavy goods vehicles have to cross through the right-hand tunnels. Thurrock is awful as well, but since we have had free-flow traffic, it is not as bad. Thurrock is as bad or as good as the rest of the M25, but Dartford remains a real problem.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I would love to give way to my hon. Friend, although I am not so sure about the others.
My hon. Friend and I know the problems all too well from our own experience, and he is giving a good description of the problems we face coming from south across a bridge that closes when the wind blows too hard and from tunnels that are not up to spec. Part of the reason for the problem is that that crossing has developed with no real strategy over the last 50 years. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is where the problem lies, and that it is where we must focus our solution? We posed a question back in 2009 that we are trying to answer in 2016, but we have forgotten what the original exam question was. We have had so many changes of teacher and lesson plan since that time that we are now trying to answer the wrong question. We need to get right back to the basics.
I completely agree. There is no solution if it adds to the problems faced by the people of Dartford and Thurrock. I shall come back to that.
As a slightly dispassionate observer from the other end of the county, in east Kent, it seems to me that there is a need for new capacity across the Thames. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as a matter of principle—irrespective of the location—there must be a new crossing?
Absolutely—100%. A few months ago, I had Mr Potts of the Highways Agency in my office, and I got quite heated with him. I got him to admit that, however many crossings he built to the east of the existing crossing, he would at some point have to come back and fix the M25 at Dartford. It is possible to fix the problems of the M25 only if they are fixed at Dartford. Let me explain why.
There are several different types of traffic that all meet in the congested area between Dartford and Thurrock. First, there is what we could call national long-range traffic. Secondly, there is the regional traffic off the A14 in Essex and off the A2 in Kent. Thirdly, there is the local traffic—people going to hospital appointments or collecting children from school on either side at the exits in Dartford. The problem is that those three different categories—fast, long-range traffic to someone doing the school run—collide at Dartford and, into the mix, we also have to throw heavy goods vehicles and dangerous goods vehicles, as well as a huge amount of freight that comes in from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke).
If we want to fix the problem at Dartford, therefore, we have to find some way of separating those three different types of traffic. As I have said, there were originally a number of options, including option A at Dartford, but none of them, including the current option C, meant new roads to connect one bit of the M25 to another.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Can he tell us why he believes that Highways England, the local enterprise partnership, the freight and haulage industry, Ebbsfleet Development Corporation, both county councils, Lakeside, Bluewater, the port authorities, the chambers of commerce —and the list goes on—are all wrong and he is right on this issue?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. I am about to provide an even longer list of people who are in favour of option C, so I shall answer his question then.
My hon. Friend said he agreed that there must be a crossing somewhere. Wherever that crossing goes, does he agree that it should not simply plug back into the M25, but that there needs to be a join-across to the M11, so that there can be a corridor through to the north of the nation?
Yes. There is only one real option now— option C—but I think that if option A were accepted that should be the case, and, indeed, the same would apply to any of the other options, historically.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Yes, once more.
I thank my hon. Friend. This is my last intervention.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are not to make this some glorified M25 relief road, but a route from the channel ports to the north of the nation, we ought to upgrade the A2 as well?
Again, I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I also think that it is crazy for all those freight trains to offload at Ashford when they could easily trundle on for another two hours and be well north of the affected area.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Of course. I thank my hon. Friends for making my speech for me.
We are pleased to be of assistance.
May I return to my earlier point? We all accept that something needs to be done. I do not think anyone doubts that there is a problem of congestion in our part of north Kent and south Essex, caused by a crossing which, according to a written answer from the Department for Transport, failed 300 times last year in one way or another. I entirely understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) about an alternative route linking up with the wider road network. That is all very welcome, and option C might well fulfil that requirement. What it would not do, however—because it would remove only 14% of the traffic—is address the problem where it exists. We have a crossing that is not fit for purpose at the moment, and we need to focus our energies on that.
I am really enjoying agreeing with everyone so far this evening. As I have said, for many years no one really thought that option B, C, D or E would be chosen. I remember one of my friends, who was the roads Minister at the time, saying, “Don’t worry; it will be option A, another bridge at Dartford.” I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, and I understand his concerns, but we never thought that options that did not do something to ameliorate the M25 would ever be selected. Even the Highways England guy accepts that at some point you will have to go back and fix the problems of the M25, because the M25 is still going down that route today, as it did 30 years ago and as it will in 30 years’ time.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Does he not accept that the solution is not to funnel more and more traffic through the narrow corridor that is the approach to the Dartford crossing at Dartford? Should we not have more resilience, as we have across the rest of the Thames, and site crossings at various different locations? My hon. Friend seems to be advocating the funnelling of more traffic into the Dartford area, whereas the solution, surely, is to take traffic away and site the crossing east of Gravesend.
I think that the solution lies in any number of measures, but there certainly needs to be further capacity. I agree that we cannot try to squeeze more and more stuff into that collision of long-range national, regional and local traffic. I think that we need to seriously revisit the idea of taking Dartford and Thurrock out of the equation. I have spoken to tunnelling experts who say that that is eminently doable. We need—and it is perfectly feasible—a long tunnel that would start south of the A2 and pop out north of the A14, and vice versa, to swallow up the traffic. The effect of such a tunnel would really depend on numbers, and numbers are a moving target. As I shall explain a little later, Highways England is extremely good at making numbers fit whatever its argument is at the time. However, let us say for argument’s sake that 40%— it could be more, but Highways England would say that it was very much less—of the traffic that goes through your constituency, or hangs around for hours in your constituency, killing your constituents—
Order. By coincidence, the hon. Gentleman’s mistake is actually correct. He is unaware that he has used the word “you”. I never pick people up on that on the first occasion when it is a mistake, but the hon. Gentleman is an experienced parliamentarian, and he will know that if he says “you”, he is referring to the Chair. Normally I object very significantly if a Member says “you”, meaning another Member but technically referring to me. In this case, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to refer to me, but wrong to do so in the way that he did.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; of course you are right and I am sure you have also experienced the nightmare at the Dartford crossing.
For argument’s sake, let us say that the national long-range through-traffic going from the area around Gatwick, along the M25 and then up to the north of England without going anywhere near the exits at Dartford and Thurrock is 40%. If we could somehow get rid of all or most of that 40%, we would suddenly find we had 60% of the traffic remaining. So if we were to build a long tunnel, the regional and local traffic, and presumably some heavy-goods traffic, could use the existing crossings, which would, I would think, be great for the people of Dartford and Thurrock, and the through-traffic would not be seen at all.
I understand that Highways England thinks that when in 2025 the road to nowhere to the east of Gravesend is built—unfortunately, the road has no further connectivity south of the A2, which has not been considered too well—there will be only a 14% reduction at Dartford. I intend to comment later on the fact that Highways England has not provided the public with the numbers, although it may have provided them to Ministers.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent case, as I would expect. I want to talk about the statistical modelling around traffic flows and the 14% that Highways England suggests will be diverted to option C, leaving 86% wishing to use the current infrastructure in place between Dartford and Thurrock. When I met Highways England recently I challenged its representatives, saying, “Can you show me the modelling for this because I’m concerned about what happens when the crossing fails, as it does regularly? How will the new crossing alleviate the problems we have between Dartford and Thurrock? Where is the modelling? Show me the stats.” Unfortunately, Highways England was unable to do that; its representative said, “That will be what we have to show at the next stage.” When we are talking about spending many billions of pounds on a new crossing and the impact that will have, the modelling being used has to be beyond question. Would my hon. Friend care to comment?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He and I have been, not always successfully, driving around southern England trying to persuade people that what we need is a long tunnel rather than this road to nowhere. The other day I again had a couple of people from Highways England in my house and we were talking about this. I mentioned that 40% of traffic is long-range traffic, and the guy from Highways England told me that the figure was 12%. Can anybody listening out there in the country or here in the House who has driven on the M25 seriously think that only 12% of the traffic is through-traffic and that the rest joins at, let us say, Dartford or Thurrock and then goes on? It is clearly nonsense, and I do not know quite what is going on with Highways England.
I hope we have some time for this discussion. My hon. Friend talks about Highways England’s modelling. Is he aware that it has modelled the possibility of having option C built and has discovered that it would increase overall capacity by some 70%? It has also modelled the so-called A14 option, which is the tunnel my hon. Friend alludes to, and has discovered not only that will it be prohibitively expensive, but that it will take very little traffic away from the Dartford crossing?
As I have suggested, I have very little confidence in Highways England’s numbers, and that was underlined for me by the meeting a couple of weeks ago where the guy said with a straight face that 12% of the traffic was through-traffic. I will come on to this in a minute, but the benefit-cost ratios are almost changed to fit whatever crisis Highways England has been having at a particular point.
So the crossing to nowhere, east of Gravesend, would reduce the traffic at Dartford by 14% when built. Apparently, it would also reduce by about 25% the number of trucks coming up from Dover at the existing crossing. However, that is nothing compared with the benefits of a long tunnel completely bypassing Dartford and Thurrock. Highways England’s sham consultation does not even mention a new crossing at Dartford; it mentions only option C.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has pointed out that the only people who now seem to be against option C are those who live in the areas that would be affected by it, or Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) and myself, who represent people who will be affected. I have here a list of the people and organisations who want this new road to nowhere. It is a formidable list, and it includes: Highways England; Kent County Council; Essex County Council; the South East local enterprise partnership; Dubai Ports World London Gateway; the Claridon Group; Ebbsfleet Development Corporation; Kent Invicta chamber of commerce; St Modwen Properties; the Port of Dover; London chamber of commerce and industry; the Port of Tilbury; Essex chamber of commerce; intu Lakeside; the Port of London Authority; London Southend airport; Eurotunnel; Kent Developers Group; Navigator Terminals; Glenny LLP; and Cogent Land LLP. Annoyingly, the list also includes the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association.
Kent and Essex County Councils—and, indeed, all those others—have, quite understandably from their perspective, leapt at the opportunities for economic growth offered by a crossing east of Gravesend. However, the group of people that no one has been thinking about is the road users. They are the ones who will actually have to drive on the M25 over the next few decades.
That is a formidable list, and my hon. Friend has mentioned road users such as the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association. Given the length of his list, is it not possible that this might actually be the best location, even though it might prove difficult for him and his constituents?
I will say more about my constituents in a moment. One reason that I read out the list is that this could become yet another great disconnect between the political and business classes and the ordinary people—not that we need much reminding of such things, given recent events in the world. The message has not yet got out to the users of the M25, but at some point it will. They are the people who will be most affected by this proposal. It was a big disappointment to me that road hauliers support it, because I was pretty sure that they would come on side, given that it is very expensive to have a truck sitting idling in traffic for hours and hours. My worst experience of that lasted about two and half hours, and anyone else listening to this debate will have their own memories of such nightmares.
I recently met a representative of a logistics company based in Thurrock—unfortunately, this was after we had met the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association—who estimated that when the crossing fails, the traffic backs up at a rate of a mile for every minute it is closed. The area would therefore still become gridlocked when the existing crossing fails even if a new crossing were to be built to the east. Unfortunately, I did not have that evidence when we held those important meetings. Had I done so, perhaps it would have changed people’s minds.
Thank you for helping me out there. I did not actually know that. That is very useful. I am looking around the Chamber—[Interruption.] Sometimes, the public do not appreciate that many of the people who are not here are actually working quite hard elsewhere. The reality is that the Chamber is virtually empty and that all but one or two Members here have a personal interest in this case. If people realised the enormity of the carnage that will follow if we do not take this opportunity to fix the M25 at Dartford for another 30 years, or however long it takes before we have to come back to sort it, this place would be full of MPs from all parties. There might actually be some Labour Members who would be genuinely and deeply worried about the situation for their constituents and the constituents of Members in the decades to come. The problem is that the people of England have not yet spoken on this matter because they have not realised what the decision to go ahead with option C will mean.
My neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Dartford rightly pointed out that, as the Member for Gravesham, I will of course be against the proposal—not strictly true, but I will come to that in a moment—but it is true that it will blight thousands of homes in my constituency and others. I hope that I have shown this occasionally in my 11 years in this place, but if I believed that the road to nowhere to the east of Gravesend was the right decision, I would pluck up the considerable courage needed to go and see my friend Rev. Nigel Bourne, the rector of Chalk, my friends in the Higham action group or the Shorne action group, with whom we have been working for many years, and the people of the villages of Higham, Shorne, Chalk or Riverview Park to tell them. I would try to show some moral courage even if they hated me forevermore.
However, I will not do that, because the reality is that the proposal is a looming disaster that will become a scandal for this Government when the public realise that the £5 billion opportunity to fix the M25 is about to be wasted and when we all realise that it is too late to stop a plan that will result in another 30 years of misery. There are entirely viable schemes, including the seven-mile tunnel under Dartford and Thurrock in option A, but Ministers in the Department for Transport are highly competent, intelligent people—
It is true, but they are not experts on roads. Ministers must listen to the people who pass for experts—in this case, Highways England.
My hon. Friend and I have been communicating with a Mr Potts from Highways England. He has now left his current position and is moving on to pastures new—I am sure we both wish him well. Everyone knows that something needs to be done here, but my worry is that we are unable to step off the path we are on because there is no continuity. We have had a change of Ministers, all of whom are capable as my hon. Friend said, and a change of personnel in Highways England. My great concern is that we are on this path and will keep plodding along it without actually taking stock of what we are trying to achieve.
Absolutely. One thing that I have noted in my time here is that we are told that certain things must happen or cannot happen. Back in about 2007, when we again had appalling traffic at Dartford, I remember writing on behalf of constituents to say that it was crazy that people have to pay money at the toll and asking why we could not have a free-flow system. We were told back then—I presume by the same people—that there was absolutely no way that we could have free flow because of some safety thing, but that suddenly disappeared. Quangos change their numbers and what they say depending on where the argument is going. We have seen that in some of the disastrous military ventures over the past decade. Officials do sometimes get it wrong. Ministers are prudent to listen to the experts in their Department, but that does not mean that they are always right or that they are always looking after the interests of ordinary people who, in this case, have to use the road for years.
I completely get where my hon. Friends the Members for South Basildon and East Thurrock and for Dartford are coming from, because when the question of a new crossing at Dartford came up, they would rightly have been horrified, equating it with more traffic. But if I were one of them right now, I would be on my knees begging the roads Minister to look at something that could separate the traffic out at Dartford, and I would be begging the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Transport, and writing to the Prime Minister.
I will give way in a moment. I fear that something has happened with the political classes in these places. It has almost become a sort of truism: it is quite hard to go anywhere now. I do not know whether I am allowed to ask a question to someone who is about to intervene on me, but I will throw this out there: I would have thought that, if this were possible, my hon. Friend would love to see a long tunnel that could save his constituents.
Yes, I would, but that tunnel would be east of Gravesend. I ask my hon. Friend to consider carefully the fact that any road system we put in place at the approach to the existing Dartford crossing—option A, the alternative advocated by him—would result in at least six years of roadworks and would kill the Thames Gateway area. It would kill the house building and enterprise that exists in that place and would be devastating for local communities, who are already suffering from pollution, which is going through the roof. I ask him to consider some of those issues and to understand that the option C route provides an alternative to all those downsides and can help seriously to improve the current traffic congestion from which we suffer.
Order. May I say to the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) that I am allowing interventions to be very long on the understanding that people will not make speeches, but these interventions are turning into mini-speeches themselves? If people kept their interventions a little more brief, I would be grateful.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Tell that to your constituents in 10 years’ time, when the problem at Dartford has not been ameliorated by a long tunnel to the east of Gravesend. Again, I am not an expert, but I think you are thinking in the old way and you are still—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is speaking through the Chair, so if he would refer to the hon. Member for Dartford, I would be grateful.
I am sure you are not thinking in the old way, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford may be thinking in terms of six years of disaster, building new bridges and so on. I am not an expert on tunnelling, but I would have thought that, where a tunnel is being built, there is inconvenience from things such as ventilation shafts. However, where a tunnel is being started to the south of the A2 or north of the A14—
A13. Where that is being done, there are an awful lot of large fields for the large equipment, and all that expertise that we currently have in Britain as a result of the building of Crossrail is available, all in the cause of swallowing up the traffic and rescuing constituents—whether 40% or 12%, if we believe Highways England, or whatever the number is.
Why is this going so disastrously wrong for the residents of Thurrock and Dartford? If this money is spent on the crossing to nowhere to the east of Gravesend, people in Dartford and Thurrock will continue to suffer appalling pollution, traffic and inconvenience for decades. The traffic jams on the M25 will go on and on, and there will be huge economic disbenefits: the millions of pounds lost as people sit in traffic jams, rather than doing their jobs; the huge amounts of money lost to road hauliers; and the cost in personal terms of people sitting in traffic forever. I do not think that the economic disbenefits of millions and millions of hours spent in these traffic queues has been considered at all in the benefit-cost ratios that I will go into in just a moment.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if we look at what is being proposed on a map, we would see that we have to commit to option C very early in terms of coming up the A2 and coming round the M25? When that crossing fails, there will already be considerable traffic heading towards it, which is why we will continue to get congestion. This approach will be great for the likes of Dover, but not so great for our constituents.
I thank my hon. Friend for that, and that point has been made by Bob Lane, who has been chairing the opposition to the proposal in my constituency. Understandably, early on, when someone raised the prospect of yet another crossing at Dartford, local residents were concerned that it would lead to more traffic, but they were not aware of the tunnel option. Indeed, I think that there are a few other options that would be considerably less intrusive than what they originally had in mind, which was another great big bridge, squeezing a few more lanes through.
Everyone in this country suffers because of the huge economic disbenefits of millions of hours lost to the economy because of traffic. This is an unquantified figure that is not in Highways England’s cost-benefit analysis. The cost-benefit analysis is traditionally used to assess the value for money of something, so it represents the ratio of benefits to cost. If the benefits of a proposal are smaller than the cost, that is, if the benefit-cost ratio is less than one—I am sorry to do this, but it is important—it would represent bad value for money. Generally, the higher the BCR, the better the value for money.
During the 2013 Department for Transport consultation on options for a new Thames crossing, it is telling that reducing congestion was only one of the five key criteria. A comparison of cost and value for money was carried out and BCRs were produced for option A and option C. In 2013, option A’s indicative BCR was between 1.0 and 1.8 and option C’s BCR was between 1.2 and 1.3. We then come to 2016 and Highways England’s consultation and the BCR for location A had gone from 1.5 to 0.9—that is, bad value—and for location C, it had gone to between 2.3 and 1.7, a complete turnaround. I say it again: they fit the numbers to suit the argument, in my view. That takes absolutely no account of the economic disbenefits of people sitting in that traffic for another couple of generations.
I am sorry to be slightly evangelical, but for the good of millions of people, over many years of misery, I ask anyone hearing this debate to tell their friends and not to say that they were not warned. We only fix the M25 at Dartford by fixing the M25 at Dartford. We have an historic opportunity to fix it for all those people living in the south-east of England, all those people driving through and, in particular, for the people of Dartford for whom, if I were in the shoes of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, I would be on my knees.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in many ways this is a conversation and a debate that we should have been having 15 years ago? Frankly, it is outrageous that nothing has taken place since the bridge was built to tackle the increasing congestion and projected increase in traffic flows at the Dartford crossing. We are therefore playing catch-up after the failure of what has gone before.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. People in my constituency have spoken about him—people from Gravesham speaking about the Member for Dartford—and have said what an amazing fight he has put up over the years for his people, as has, more recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock. I am not disputing that at all. He is to be commended for that. However, we now have a chance, possibly, and we should be looking into it. I remember speaking to him about the M25 a few months ago, trying to persuade him of this. I think there is a chance.
We should be getting Ministers to talk seriously to Highways England and the tunnelling firms. If we flunk this final chance in favour of a ludicrous scheme that has morphed from solving the misery at Dartford to include road capacity, economic regeneration and all sorts of other things, we will, even by Highways England’s own account, have to come back to fix the M25 at some point in the future. For 30 years or whatever the period is, people will have to sit in traffic if this bizarre decision goes through. I pray that in 15 years’ time people do not look back on us and think that we were the guilty men and women.
It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) on securing it. It is not the first time that he has raised these matters either in the House or with me. He is diligent in addressing the concerns of his constituents in this regard.
By the standard of Adjournment debates, we have already had an extensive exploration of the subjects before us. For that reason, and so as not to tire the House or delay those Members who wish to make strides towards other important and exciting events, I will abbreviate my remarks by responding closely to what has been said in the debate already. I have 10 points to make, some of which are contained in the text prepared for me and some of which are not; I say that chillingly, as far as my future is concerned, but it will be, I have no doubt, for the excitement of the Chamber.
First, my hon. Friend and other Members, including you, Madam Deputy Speaker, have known me long enough and seen me often enough to know that however he might characterise other members of the Government, heaven forbid, I am not a man who is a slave to the advice that I receive from my Department. I would not go as far as to say that I entirely share the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) about experts, but I tend to that point of view. I believe that it is for Ministers to make key strategic decisions based on advice that they receive and sometimes based on advice that they do not receive. My hon. Friend can be assured that there will be no slavish adherence to any third-party view of these things. I make the views of this House and of my right hon. and hon. Friends from all sides of the House on such matters the guiding principle by which I go about my work.
Secondly, I am very familiar with the subject of this debate, having been in the Department before. My hon. Friend called for consistency. In that sense, I am the personification of consistency in this job because I have done it twice. I am not sure that many other people could say that about any job in government. I looked at these matters closely when I was first in the Department, as he will know. Since then things have changed, but they have changed only in one way: the problem of congestion has, if anything, become greater. He will know that there are now around 55 million vehicle crossings a year. The crossing is operating at overcapacity of around 117%. Even with free-flow charging, congestion is a very significant problem. There has been a 7% increase in traffic volumes in the past year alone.
I know how difficult the problem of congestion is for my hon. Friend’s constituents and others who use the crossing, including those who use it for national purposes. I was impressed by what he said about figures. I want those figures too, so I assure him that when I meet him later this month to discuss these matters, as I surely will, I want to explore those numbers and the split between local, regional and national traffic in as much detail as we reasonably can. These are not exact figures—we would have to count every vehicle and determine where it was going, why it was going there and where it came from to get those numbers pinpoint accurate—but we can work on broader numbers to his satisfaction.
The third point I would make is that there are no fixed views about this. There was an implication that the Government are entirely rigid in their approach to this matter. That is not true. The circumstances are changing and highly dynamic—I have already illustrated that in what I said about changing volumes—so it is important that we are open-minded. Where there is an absolute consistency—indeed, a certainty—is that we cannot leave things as they are.
Absolutely. I completely accept what my right hon. Friend says about Ministers, but I do think that Highways England’s mind is probably closed. That was well demonstrated by the fact that the so-called consultation we had, which 49,000 people answered, did not, I think, even mention option A.
In the end, Highways England is answerable to Ministers, who are answerable to this House. In the approach I outlined at the outset, in the first of my 10 points, I made it clear that Ministers should take the decisions and that those missioned to make those decisions happen should deal not with those key strategic matters but with the delivery of the strategy determined by Government. I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I tell him what I will do—this is not one of my 10 points, but I will add a point, if I might do so, with your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I do not want to lead anyone up the garden path. I will meet the chief executive of Highways England tomorrow and raise exactly this point. I will tell him what has been said tonight, and I will test his view of these things. I will make it clear that we need to be open-minded and to take an evidential approach; we certainly need to take the views of those who know best—by that, I mean my hon. Friend and others—very seriously indeed.
Would my right hon. Friend also commend it to those officials that they answer the questions of Mr Steve Gooding, who is the director of the RAC Foundation, and a former very senior official at the Department for Transport? He and the head of another very large motoring organisation have concerns that this has morphed from something just about roads and transport into something much wider. Mr Gooding shares the Minister’s concerns that we need some proper, hard numbers. It is clearly complete nonsense to say that only 12% of this stuff is long-range through traffic. I know that the Minister is determined to get to the truth of this, too.
As my hon. Friend also knows, I am, by and large, in favour of faith, but I am not sure, when one is dealing with road traffic analysis, that things can be quite a matter of faith. I think it does, as I said, need to be empirical, and I will certainly make that point.
The gentleman my hon. Friend referred to has corresponded with me in just the last couple of days, when he was admiring my work as Minister, I am delighted to be able to report to the House. I will certainly discuss with him his views on these matters when I have the chance to do so.
Let me move to my next point. My hon. Friend spoke about the split between local and national traffic. He is right to say that the solutions for each may well have to take a rather different form. Now, I can tell that there is something of a—I will not put this too strongly—creative tension between the perspectives of my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for Gravesham. I do not want to draw too much close attention to those differences, but both of my hon. Friends have their point, and both make it well on behalf of their constituents. I understand those arguments, and it is because we are wrestling with them, and trying to get this right, that we are not fixed in our view of what solution would be best. Clearly, we have been through a consultation, we have looked at options for a crossing further east, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham, and indeed the whole House, is well aware, and we are still deliberating on those matters. However, I would not want to give the impression that we are not prepared to listen. We certainly are prepared to continue to listen to the overtures that are made in this House and elsewhere.
Because I am prepared to listen, I need to give way to my hon. Friend.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Although I appreciate and accept that the Department for Transport has an open mind, does he agree that it would be unusual in the extreme for a whole body of experts in Highways England to say collectively to the Department for Transport, “Option C offers the best value for money and is the best route to minimise the amount of traffic in the area and deal with the traffic congestion,” and for the Department simply to ignore that advice?
If my hon. Friend were a harder and crueller man than he is, he might have pointed out what could be described as a contradiction in what I have said. I said that I was not going to be governed by experts and that I would take the decisions, but shortly afterwards I said that those decisions must be entirely evidential—that they must be empirical. It is true that that empiricism will, in part, come from those experts, but that is not a contradiction for this reason: part of the evidence that we collect will be on-the-ground evidence from the users of the road. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham expressed his concern that those who made the decisions might be oblivious to road users’ interests, but I assure him that they are not. It is entirely possible to square that evidential approach with an approach that is responsive to the real, on-the-ground experience of people who use the crossing and the roads that are linked to it.
I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to my earlier remarks about the fact that when I challenged Highways England on the evidence it was using—the numbers and the modelling—about the 14% that would use option C, it could not point to where that was. It said that that would come at a later stage. All I am trying to say is that the evidence has yet to be established unquestionably.
That is certainly true. It is also true that Highways England needs to do more in the way in which it communicates with Members of Parliament. I have told it so and, to its credit, it has taken that on board. My hon. Friend will know that it is now holding a series of meetings with colleagues from across the country to discuss local and regional concerns. That is a direct result of the emphasis that I placed, when I returned to the Department, on the need for Highways England to provide hon. and right hon. Members with accurate information of the kind that has been requested tonight.
I want to move on, because it is not right that I detain the House unduly, although I want to respond as fully as possible to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham and others. The existing crossing is at capacity for much of the time, as I have said, and it is one of the least reliable sections of England’s strategic road network of motorways and major trunk roads. Closures and congestion occur frequently and have a big impact on business and communities regionally, locally and elsewhere in the UK.
I emphasise that we can, however, do more with the existing crossing. Reference has been made to the Dart Charge, and hon. Members will know that the introduction of Dart Charge necessitated some changes to the way in which the crossing is managed. Even with free-flow charging, as I have said, there is a congestion problem. We can take a close look at what more can be done. The road signage on the northbound crossing approach is being reviewed, and we are looking at the movements of different types of vehicles as they approach the crossing to see what improvements can be made. Work continues with local authorities on both sides of the crossing to improve traffic flows between the local and strategic road networks. That includes a joint approach from Highways England and Kent County Council on a number of improvement measures for the junctions used by traffic approaching the crossing from Dartford.
Highways England will continue, on my instruction, to monitor the conditions at the crossing and to understand the various factors contributing to its performance. I want to make sure that, notwithstanding the wider debate about a second crossing, we are using the existing system as effectively and efficiently as we can. I note that point, which has been made by various hon. Members, and I think we can probably do more. We are certainly looking at the matter closely, and I will bring further information to the House when we have done so.
I am heartened that the Minister appreciates that wherever the new lower Thames crossing is situated, a lot of work will need to be carried out to mitigate the existing problems at the Dartford crossing. Does he agree that Highways England needs to take a radical approach? It needs to look at the possibility of partially closing junctions and at the better management of box junctions, as does the Department for Transport. Highways England needs to look at this whole matter in a radical way so that we can ensure that, during the approximately 10 years it will take to build the lower Thames crossing, my constituents are not held to ransom by the traffic congestion that we suffer daily.
I never like to use the word “radical” except pejoratively, but my hon. Friend is right that we need to be imaginative and lateral in our thinking. The appropriate application of imagination that he describes is necessary for making best use of the existing capacity, as well as when looking at changes that are needed.
To that end, it is worth saying something about the M25 more widely. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham mentioned the M25, if I may put it in these terms, in the round. He is right to say that looking just at the crossing without considering the wider road network would be an error of judgment. We will look at it more widely, and in my meeting with him I want to explore the issue of the M25 in full to ensure that while the steps we take may be many miles from the crossing, they will have an effect on it. He is right to draw the House’s attention to the M25 per se.
My hon. Friend was also right to talk about continuing dialogue with the community. I have spoken about the exchanges between Highways England and hon. Members, but it is important that the community—through Members and other representative bodies such as local councils—is taken fully into account. I will ensure that that happens in parallel with the work that Highways England does with colleagues.
Highways England has a challenging task, and it is easy for us to be very critical of it. I am quite tough, frankly, with those who work with and for me, but I think that we should adopt a tough and appreciative tone. We recognise that Highways England will be trying its best to get this right, and we need to work with it to ensure the best possible outcome for road users. I will be demanding, but at the same time I want to be appreciative of its efforts.
I am sure my hon. Friend shares that view and is dying to make that clear in his next intervention.
Absolutely. However, I urge the Minister to have a look—this is in my file, but I cannot find it now—at how the criteria have changed. They were originally about the capacity to rescue the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and everyone else from sitting in the traffic, but they are now about all sorts of other things, including wider economic benefits. I think that five new criteria have emerged, and that needs to be looked at because this should be a roads project.
That is a very good point. If I am right that we need to communicate effectively with constituents and others, it will also be right to do so with a settled view about priorities. We should of course be flexible enough to take account of changing circumstances of growing demand, but we cannot keep moving the goalposts. I hear what my hon. Friend says and I want to look at that closely, but I will not make any definitive comments about it now. Again, I will be happy to raise that with Highways England so that he, other Members of the House and the wider public can be sure that the criteria used are consistent, reasoned and well communicated. That is not an unreasonable request—it seems to me to be a perfectly modest one—and I will make sure that it is made.
I am rattling through my points, as you can tell, Madam Deputy Speaker, but before I bring my remarks to a conclusion, the House will expect me to say something about the lower Thames crossing. A lot of work has been done on it, and I do not want to repeat what the House will already know. Most Members in the Chamber are very familiar with this territory, if I may say so. Let me simply emphasise that the objectives of any further crossing are plain and straightforward: affordability, both for the Government and users of the crossing; value for money, which to me is critical in any changes that are made; improving the resilience of the Thames crossings and the major road network; improving safety; minimising adverse impacts on the local community, health and the environment; and dealing with congestion.
I will, if I may, add a further element that has not been announced in this House previously, but which I think is a common-sense approach that has been given life and substance by tonight’s debate: we must try to look to the long term. It is a perennial challenge for the Government to make infrastructure decisions that are sufficient and appropriate for the long term. That is not straightforward, because one is projecting and modelling sometimes for many decades ahead. When we build a new road or crossing, or invest in a major piece of infrastructure, we do so not for our generation and perhaps not for the next, but for the generations to come, because these things last decades. It is right, in any decisions we take, to take full account of the long-term trends and changes that any changes we make will have to cope with. That point was made forcefully earlier in the debate and I want to add it to the core list that I have just read.
The Minister talked about affordability, value, resilience, safety, minimum impact and capacity, and then mentioned the long term, but what is desperately needed now is capacity. Option C does not provide the capacity that is needed right now by the tens of millions of people who are suffering in traffic queues. Once we have sorted out capacity, by all means let us go for some of those other things and have a conversation about something to the east of Gravesend or wherever, but let us not confuse two things. The problem is the disaster at Dartford and it will be a complete scandal if we do not sort that out.
Of course my hon. Friend is right that we must deal with the imperative. The imperative problem, as I have described it, is one of growing congestion, growing demand, compromises therefore on the rest of the road network, inconvenience for travellers, disruption to businesses and so on. Of course, in dealing with those imperatives, not to take account of what will happen later would be a failure.
Governments, as I have said, are not always good at looking at long-term strategic decisions. That is why Governments in democratic polities tend to underinvest in infrastructure. It is quite bold and brave to think 20, 30, 50 or even 100 years hence, but when one is making big decisions about infrastructure, that is exactly what one is trying to do. It can only be based on an estimate, an understanding of the trends and a set of models. It can be based on nothing else because we cannot be certain how, why or by what means people will travel in 100 years’ time, but the roads and bridges we build will certainly last that long. All the evidence of the past suggests that they do, does it not? There is no contradiction in taking decisions that deal with the imperatives while doing so in a way that looks at things for the long term.
I will give way once more and then move to my exciting peroration.
It is a pleasure to have a Minister at the Dispatch Box who understands the issues so clearly—he has been in his job twice, as he points out. The figures from Highways England point out that if we were to pursue its proposed route, by 2035 the capacity at the existing Dartford crossing would again exceed 100%. We really must focus—I respectfully ask the Minister to do so—on solving the problem where it exists at the moment. If we do that, we can work towards other long-term solutions for the M25 at a later point. Let us solve the problem that we have set out to solve now.
I will not go into great detail about—
Will the Minister give way?
I do not want unnecessarily to suggest that there is antagonism in the Chamber, but given that I have already given way generously to one side of the argument, in an exercise in balance I ought to give way to the other.
In a final intervention, may I be so bold as to give the Minister a brief history lesson? When in the 1600s it was decided that London bridge was too congested, the town planners of the day decided that they would not put another crossing right next to the existing one, but would give some resilience to London. The same situation happened again and again, so we have crossings at various locations in London. That is exactly what we need to do for the future. We must ensure that we have a separate crossing location east of Gravesend.
I wonder whether the House has heard enough about the origins of London bridge and whether my hon. Friend might apply for an Adjournment debate on just that subject. I would be delighted to respond to that debate if I were given the opportunity to do so. We could then explore the veracity of his suggestion about the arguments that were advanced then, and why they were advanced. I have a limited knowledge of the history of that time in London and of that bridge, so I assume that everything he has said until now has been entirely accurate.
This matter has been brought before the House a number of times. It is of great concern to the Government. We went about the business, as Members will know, of consulting on the crossing of the Thames that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford strongly supports, and more than 47,000 people took part in that consultation. I said earlier that we are analysing the results, and we will say more in due course. But I emphasise again that this debate has served a useful purpose in drawing the House’s attention to the balance between the pressing imperatives at Dartford, which I fully appreciate and in no way make light of, and the wider need to ensure that there is adequate capacity to deal with demand to cross the River Thames, which my hon. Friend has articulated so effectively.
The assumption sometimes affects politicians—sometimes, indeed, emasculates them—that we are merely creatures of circumstance. That is not true. In the words of Benjamin Disraeli:
“Circumstances are the creatures of men. We are free agents, and man is more powerful than matter.”
It is now for good men and women to consider these things fully and in the round, on the basis of the evidence that I described earlier, and to come to appropriate judgments. That is the job of Government. These things are not easy, for government is not easy, but we are determined to do what is right. To that end, I say again that my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham has done the House a service in drawing its attention once more to these important matters.
Question put and agreed to.