[Mr Albert Owen in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered congestion at the Dartford crossing.
I am pleased to have secured this debate. I appreciate that the arguments have been made in the House on a number of occasions in the past couple of years, but until Dartford is relieved of the threat of another crossing, I will continue to lobby the Government to locate the new lower Thames crossing away from Dartford to the east of Gravesend, which is option C.
The Minister is aware that the decision is keenly awaited. We all want it to be made swiftly, primarily so we can get on with building the crossing and have some alleviation of the congestion that Dartford suffers daily. Until the decision is made, I and others will continue to harass the Secretary of State for Transport and the Roads Minister.
I hope to make a contribution later, but first I want to say that I hear what my hon. Friend is saying loud and clear about a decision being made. However, surely he agrees that whatever the decision is, the Government must demonstrate that it will solve the original problem: congestion in Dartford and at the Dartford crossing.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Option C, which Highways England prefers, would do exactly what he says. A significant proportion of the congestion—more than the 14% that is often quoted—would be moved from Dartford and, more importantly, a choice would be provided for motorists. At the moment, drivers, particularly of freight vehicles, have no choice and must use the Dartford crossing. Freight vehicles often cannot fit through the Blackwall tunnel, so must go to Dartford. If there is a problem on the approach to the Dartford crossing in Kent or Essex, freight and other vehicles cannot use the crossing, so there must be a choice and some resilience in the system, which is not there at the moment. It is clear that option C should be built, because of the choice it would give to motorists and the resilience it would provide that is currently not there.
It is in the interests not only of Dartford but of the whole country that we tackle this significant congestion problem. I submit that the approach to the Dartford crossing is the worst stretch of road in the whole United Kingdom. Not only does it have some of the worst congestion in the country, but to add insult to injury, drivers must pay to use it. They often pay to sit in traffic, which is why it is the worst stretch of road in the UK. The Department for Transport should deal with it as a priority.
No other stretch of road impacts so much on so many people. No other road has had a song released about it. You would rule me out of order, Mr Owen, if I quoted the lyrics of that song, but I am pleased to say that a cleaner version is now available on the internet should anyone want to download it. I think you get the gist of what the lyrics are likely to be. They illustrate clearly the frustration that many people experience when using the Dartford crossing.
No stretch of road in the country has such an impact on the local population as the approach to the Dartford crossing. When the M25 in my constituency is congested because of traffic on the A282 approach to the crossing, it paralyses the local town. It prevents children being picked up from school and people from getting to work and carrying out their business, and creates horrific pollution levels. It is killing people in the Dartford area.
It is worth looking at the accident figures for the A282 approach to the crossing. It is not just pollution that is having a detrimental impact on people’s health in Dartford; it is the accidents. During 2011-12, there were 79 accidents on the approach road. The following year, when the work started on the free-flow system, that number had increased to 143. In 2013-14, there were 318 accidents, double the previous number, and if that was not sufficient, from September 2014 to August 2015, it doubled again to 675. Last year, the combined figure for injury and non-injury accidents showed a reduction, which was pleasing, but still as high as 487. That is an horrific number of accidents in the area.
I completely agree that the number of accidents my hon. Friend is describing is horrendous. What I cannot get my head around is how moving 14% of traffic—the figure may be disputed—away from the existing crossing will significantly reduce the number of accidents at that spot.
It has been shown that capacity will increase by some 70% under option C. Highways England provided that figure, which illustrates clearly that option C would improve traffic and the problem of accidents at the approach. It is not just the volume of traffic that causes accidents; the poor road layout and the poor signage compounds the problem. We have seen a ninefold increase in the number of road accidents per year between 2012 and 2015, so better road signage and a better road layout are desperately needed to reduce the number of accidents at that location.
It is fair to say that we must plan ahead for the increase in traffic flow at the Dartford crossing. The tunnels were designed for 140,000 vehicles a day, but anything up to 170,000 use them daily and the laws of physics say there must be traffic issues. Traffic management must be looked at seriously, not just at the new lower Thames crossing and not just while it is being built. We must have better management of traffic flow and mitigate the problems affecting Dartford.
We should have been discussing this some 15 years ago. Road planning means planning ahead for problems that will exist in future. It is a brutal fact that nothing was done for so many years that, to all intents and purposes, we are playing catch-up and trying to deal with a problem in 10 years’ time when it is here today. We should be debating the opening of the new lower Thames crossing, but instead we are debating where it should be.
I return to a point I made to my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe). There are two options on the table: option A and option C. Option C is preferred, not just by Highways England but others, because it would provide an alternative for motorists and some resilience in the network. The idea that we should just build more and more crossings at Dartford is pure madness. It flies in the face of common sense to suggest that more and more crossings in the same location, relying on the same local roads funnelling through the pinch point that Dartford has become, is a solution to the problem.
When we are looking at what has worked well and what has not worked well in the whole Thames area, it is fair to say that the west of London is more affluent than the east of London, partly because of the lack of connectivity east of London compared with that to the west of London. Chelsea and Battersea trade very well and the transportation links are very good. Richmond and Twickenham are north and south of the Thames and interlink very well. However, when we come to the border between Essex and Kent, the Thames is like a brick wall between the two counties. Those two affluent counties cannot trade with each other to their full potential because of that lack of connectivity. I argue that option C would change that fundamentally and provide the connectivity that is lacking.
I agree very much with what my hon. Friend is saying about the lack of connectivity between Kent and Essex. That may well be a barrier to economic growth, and one argument for a new crossing is that it will stimulate such growth, but option C is a halfway house. If we were really trying to develop economic growth, we would go for something further east, perhaps linking Canvey with north Kent—an option D road solution.
That is an interesting idea. I think that the cost would be astronomical, but having more crossings is essential. Perhaps it could be a plan for the future. At the moment, we do not have anything east of Tower bridge other than the Blackwall tunnel and the Dartford crossing, and vehicles relying on the Woolwich ferry to try to alleviate some of the problems is simply not a solution.
We have mentioned before the failure of commerce to take off in the area east of London. When we talk to businesses in the area, we find that they desperately want option C to happen. We can speak to the garden city builders, the local enterprise partnership, the Freight Transport Association, Eurotunnel, the road haulage industry and Lakeside and Bluewater shopping centres. We can speak to almost any organisation outside the Gravesham area and, in Essex, the Basildon and east Thurrock area, and what it wants is for option C to happen. The Thames Gateway project has been held back as a result of a lack of infrastructure. The infrastructure is not there to support the commerce that is desperately needed in that area. Therefore, in Kent at least—the situation may be different in Essex—we are hard-pushed to find a business or organisation outside the Gravesham area that does not think that the solution to the problem is option C.
Another reason for that is that option C, according to Highways England, would enable vehicles still to travel at 70 mph. If we built another crossing at Dartford—option A—vehicles would be restricted to 50 mph. That is another clear reason why option C is the preferred route for so many organisations and people.
Another reason is that, with option A, there would be six years of roadworks on Britain’s worst stretch of road, at Dartford. It would be catastrophic for our area if we had to deal with that problem. It would affect the whole region as it has never been affected before, and hold back the south-east region in a way that it has never experienced, if we had six years of roadworks preventing vehicles from travelling from Kent into Essex and in effect closing off that whole area. The consequences of those restrictions would be catastrophic for the area both financially and in terms of people’s quality of life. If we build option C, the roadworks will not affect the current crossing. They can be dealt with in isolation at that location; they do not need to impede the traffic that is using the crossing now.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock mentioned an option D. There could also be option E, F and so on. Some people have put forward the so-called A14 option, which is preferred by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway). It would be a 5-mile tunnel that simply ran parallel to the M25 in the east, coming off the M25, I believe, south of junction 2 and connecting up roughly around junction 30.
Highways England estimates that option C will cost £4.5 billion and take 10 years to build, but it is half the length of option A14, so I shudder to think what A14 would cost and how long it would take to build. The closest that we have come to a quote for that was in the answer to a parliamentary question tabled back in May. The estimate was that it would cost some £6.6 billion to build option A14. That would be prohibitively expensive. I have worked out that that tunnel would be roughly one fifth of the length of the portion of the channel tunnel that is under the sea. That gives people some idea of how long the A14 tunnel would be, and I am not aware of even any geological surveys having taken place. Frankly, a route that simply runs parallel to another and works more or less as a relief road, as opposed to a separate route, is simply not a viable project.
Some 30,000 leaflets were delivered in my constituency in support of the A14 option. They pointed out the virtues of that idea to my constituents and asked them to contact me to support it. Well, however many leaflets were delivered—we are told that it was 30,000—I have had just one response since then. The idea cannot exactly have taken Dartford by storm. It is not seen as a viable alternative by the people of Dartford—not in my experience, anyway.
I therefore conclude by saying that we need the lower Thames crossing to be built east of Gravesend—option C—and in the meantime we need Highways England to come up with innovative ideas as to how we can mitigate the existing congestion at the Dartford crossing. I ask the Minister to listen to his own traffic experts at Highways England, who favour option C, and to almost every business that has expressed an opinion on the issue. Listen to the local enterprise partnership, the garden city builders, the Thames Gateway, Bluewater, Lakeside—the list goes on. I ask him to listen to the haulage industry, but also to the people of Dartford, who have suffered immeasurably as a consequence of the Dartford crossing. It has affected the quality of life of local residents in a way in which no other area of the country has been affected. In Dartford, we are sick to the back teeth of congestion at the Dartford crossing, and we therefore ask that a plan be put forward swiftly to deal with the existing problems, but also, and most importantly, to have the lower Thames crossing built where it gives the motorist an alternative, which is east of Gravesend—option C.
It is a pleasure to serve under your leadership, Mr Owen. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing the debate, although there is a sense of déjà vu about it, given that we discussed this issue at some length only three weeks or so ago and it seems to have occupied my inbox for most of this year. However, that does not mean that this is not a very important debate and we should not rehearse the arguments time and again to see whether new explanations or opportunities arise.
I have great respect for my hon. Friend. We came into Parliament at the same time and have worked on a number of things together. However, on this issue we are fundamentally divided. We agree about the principle and about what we are trying to achieve, it is just that we have completely different ways of achieving it. I want to put it on the record straight off that this is not about pushing the problem from my constituency to his, or pushing it to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway). It is about doing what we believe to be right.
I want to state from the outset that although I fundamentally oppose option C, that is not just because it would go through my constituency; it is because I do not believe that it would solve the problem. This is a once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-generation opportunity, so anything less than solving the problem where it actually is would be, in my opinion, a lost opportunity. We need to finish the M25. Anything else will be a waste or a mistake. It never got finished in the first place.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham were here—he would have been were he not out of the country—he would say that our hon. Friend the Member for Dartford should be down on his knees begging for option A14, begging for a solution at the existing crossing. I understand my hon. Friend’s opposition to that. I understand why he and our hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock are opposed to a solution where the existing crossing is. Their constituents have suffered, as my constituents have, immeasurable amounts of congestion. It is hideous, and we all know that, but if we put in a solution that does not solve the problem, they will still be suffering hideous amounts of congestion.
I want to paint a picture. It is a picture of a future where, despite my objections and all the evidence I have presented to the various Roads Ministers I have met and to the Secretary of State that option C will not work and will fail to tackle congestion at Dartford, option C—the “road to nowhere”, as it has been described—gets the go-ahead. The Secretary of State signs it off with the Minister’s advice and off goes option C into its next stage, cutting through huge swathes of countryside in Thurrock and across the fenland, which is destroyed and lost forever. Houses—some of them newly built—are demolished. A tunnel is constructed between Gravesend and Tilbury and miles of new motorway is built across the green and pleasant land that once was Thurrock.
On the first day the Minister is there, accompanied by the Secretary of State, with scissors in hand. There is ribbon cutting, fanfares, cars flowing beautifully and lorries arriving from Dover and heading off to wherever they are going, enjoying the views of the green and pleasant pasture from the motorway. That leaves the 86% who want to use the existing crossing—we can dispute whether it is 14% who want to use the new crossing, but it is around that, and that is Highways England’s figure—sailing onwards towards the existing Dartford crossing, enjoying a 14% increase in capacity on both the bridge and the tunnel. The traffic is flowing beautifully as far as the eye can see until—bang—an accident at the tunnel mouth, which is not a rare occurrence.
The written answer I received from the Department for Transport on 23 March 2016, in response to a question I tabled on 16 March asking how many times there had been delays or tailbacks caused by closure at the Dartford crossing, said:
“Typically there are in excess of 300 incidents per year resulting in partial or full closures of the Dartford Crossing. On average each incident takes approximately 27 minutes to deal with, often requiring a lane closure for safety.”
The impact of that means it can take up to
“3 to 5 hours for the road condition to return to normal.”
In response to another question that I tabled on the same day, asking how many times the Dartford crossing had actually closed in the past 12 months, I was informed that there were nine unplanned bridge closures due to either high winds, broken-down vehicles, collisions or police-led incidents, and that the west tunnel had closed five times and the east tunnel 12 times. Looking at those answers, I fail to see how a new crossing up to 15 km away from junction 2 on the Kent side, and 9 km away from junction 30 on the north side, would ease congestion at the existing crossing.
My hon. Friend heard the figures that I gave on the number of accidents that we have had on the approach. Whenever that happens in the future, Highways England cannot inform freight coming from Dover that there is an alternative, because there is not one. It can only tell them about the congestion that exists. If we were to have option C, they would at least have a choice that does not exist today.
My hon. Friend has read the next point in my speech. The fact is that vehicles would have to commit to an alternative long before any incident happened. Just look at the map—I know that I am not really allowed to use props, but there is a useful map that shows how far the existing crossing is from where drivers would have to commit to when going north to option C or coming south around the M25 to option C.
So there we are tootling around the M2, on to the A2, and unbeknown to us there is a prang, as I described, at one of the tunnel mouths. It instantly loses 50% of capacity. However, we are already past junction 1 on the A2/M2 and we do not know there has been a prang. We are already in the flow of traffic and are committed to the route that we are taking, whether we are in a car or a lorry. Instantly, traffic starts backing up at the Dartford crossing.
The same scenario applies on the north side. Indeed, when I made these points to a logistics company based very close to the crossing in Thurrock, it said that the traffic backs up at the rate of a mile a minute when the crossing closes. Even allowing for exaggeration, the point is clear: a crossing far from the existing one—where we know that it fails because of its importance around the M25—will do nothing for Dartford or Thurrock residents, for Essex or Kent residents or for anyone in the south-east of England, because vehicles will be trapped.
What my hon. Friend describes is what we have now. When there is a problem at the approach to the Dartford crossing, everything is stuck. Even if only 30% of vehicles can be given adequate notice, by better signage, that they can use the alternative at option C, that will help thousands of vehicles. That cannot happen at the moment.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point, but the point still stands. There will be vehicles trapped within what I am describing as the “congestion triangle” between junction 29 of the M25, junction 2 of the M25 and junction 1/2 of the M2/A2. Once someone is past any of those points, they do not have an alternative. Even if option C were built, they would still be heading towards the existing crossing. Although option C may still function beautifully once there has been an incident at the existing crossing, it will do nothing to address the problem. There will still be vehicles trapped in serious congestion in and around the existing crossing. No one can show me how option C would address the problems that I have just highlighted.
I know that it is not very fashionable to base decisions on evidence. We are in this post-truth era, but if Members look at my badge—everyone who would like one is welcome to one—they will see that I love evidence. Where is the evidence that option C will actually address the congestion, the poor air quality and the catastrophic impact of a failure at the bridge? When I challenged Highways England on that exact point, when I sat down with Mr Potts before he moved on, he said, “We will have to do that modelling after the decision is made.” Quite frankly, that is not good enough, and that is not the right thing to do. That is why Dartford and Thurrock should be begging for a solution at the existing crossing. It may well be option A14. I do not know; I would like to look at all those options again. I hear very clearly what my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford says about the inconvenience of the roadworks that would come from building at option A, and that does need to be addressed. However, anything that fails to sort out the problem where it actually exists is a missed opportunity.
When I sat down to write this speech and gather my thoughts, I really struggled to know where to start. Both my hon. Friend and I could write a book on this issue; we have been living this now for years. We can go back and we look at the history of the project. It started in its current form back in 2009 and has had a number of different incarnations during the past few years. We are now getting close to a decision. It may well be that the Minister and the Secretary of State stick with option C, as recommended by Highways England. However, I fear that we are answering a question that was posed many years ago, conflating too many different issues and not actually answering the original question: what do we do about congestion at Dartford?
Until we can answer that question satisfactorily—whether we spend £4.5 billion on option C, or £6.5 billion on option A14—we should not commit to anything. We have to know that what we are going to do and spend billions of pounds on will actually have an impact on the lives of the people my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford and I represent. Until that can be proven, building a very handy road from Dover to the north of England, although that may have merits, would be a wrong-headed decision. My hon. Friend has made many, many points that I agree with, and we want the same outcome. We want better air quality for our constituents. We want free-flowing traffic. We do not want the number of accidents and the problems that we all see. However, if we do not address that problem now we are still going to have real problems in the future.
My hon. Friend asked why so many people have opted for option C. There was a long list of people, including those at Lakeside, but I would just challenge that. I am not challenging them saying that they would like option C, but look at where Lakeside is located, with its slip roads going the wrong way on to the A13 heading towards junction 30 on the M25. Even with the slightest incident its slip roads back up very quickly, so I am surprised by that. Very few people from the long list of those who want option C are based in Thurrock, although I accept that some are. However, when given only one option—I think we all accept that the consultation that was conducted earlier this year really presented only one option, which was option C—it is no wonder that people said that was the one they wanted. They were not really given an opportunity to comment on option A.
Finally, I reiterate that we have to solve the problem where it lies. We all deserve to see the evidence and see how this will work before any decision is made to carve through my constituency, or indeed that of my hon. Friend.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing a debate on this long-running issue, which he has raised many times on behalf of his long-suffering constituents, for whom traffic gridlock regularly causes misery.
As a child growing up in south London in the 1960s with grandparents in north London, I have vivid memories of the Blackwall tunnel, which was then a single tunnel with two-way traffic. I remember my sister and I singing in the back of the car, whiling away the hours—however, it was probably not the song with the X-rated lyrics that the hon. Gentleman referred to—and how we cheered when the Dartford tunnel came along. It was a huge relief but, as we have heard, we now need a 21st-century solution. I am sure that we all are awaiting the Minister’s response with interest, so I will keep my remarks brief.
The hon. Gentleman made an excellent case for option C, and the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) made a different case; it felt ever so slightly as though one was intruding on a family dispute that had been running for a long time, and I certainly do not want to pour oil on troubled waters. However, to rewind slightly, back in 2013 the Government decided that we needed a new lower Thames crossing connecting Kent and Essex. We are now three years down the line and, whatever the different views, we really need a decision. This has taken a long time and has created massive uncertainty for residents and businesses.
Despite the problems, I am told that the economy locally is doing well. However, I am also told that 73% of businesses in Dartford feel that their business is suffering because of congestion, and growth is clearly being stifled by the growing crisis. The Dartford crossing is designed for some 140,000 vehicles to cross a day. On average it reaches that design limit, with 137,411 vehicles crossing daily in 2014-15. Some people tell me that it is operating at 117% capacity. The number of journeys made using the Dartford crossing rose by around 2 million between 2011 and 2015, and 869 complaints regarding congestion have been made to Highways England in just the last 12 months.
Last month, the Minister said in a written answer that according to a traffic modelling assessment and traffic flow forecasts produced for the Dartford crossing by Highways England, the annual average daily traffic flow at the crossing is forecast to rise from 140,000 vehicles in 2014 to 159,300 vehicles in 2025. The new housing development in the nearby garden city and the proposed theme park will introduce further challenges, so I think we can all agree that congestion at the Dartford crossing is already severe and that, without action, the problems will only get worse.
In a Westminster Hall debate in January, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), said that the Dartford crossing was identified in 2011 as “a top-40 project”—but if it is a priority, why are the Government yet to deliver the solution? The need for an effective solution is not just about logistics; it is a matter for public health. It has been estimated that 6.7% of deaths in Dartford are partly attributable to long-term exposure to air pollution—a sobering figure that is exceeded only by London and Slough. Although minor improvements in reducing congestion have been achieved since the removal of the tollbooths and the introduction of the Dart charge, there is still a long way to go.
A freedom of information request to Highways England showed that in the past two years, unpaid Dart charge fines by UK-based drivers have topped £500,000. If the Dart charge is to be effective in cutting congestion, fines need to be properly enforced and non-payers chased. Of course, there are also the non-UK based non-payers. That point is timely, given the Brexit debate going on now in the main Chamber, so will the Minister tell us today what progress he has made on chasing European non-payers? Will that form part of the Brexit negotiations? Indeed, in the new spirit of openness that apparently started yesterday, will he tell us whether it is part of the Government’s negotiating strategy even? Where will it be in the priority list? Could it be a red line—even a red, white and blue line?
But I digress. The Labour group in Dartford—ably led by Jonathon Hawkes, whom I thank for his advice in preparing for this debate—has rightly called for a new traffic plan focused on delivering additional investment to bring forward the delivery of promised improvement works, intervention to ease the bottlenecks that cause congestion and improvements to the public transport network, as well as the decision on the crossing. Many were hoping—indeed, expecting—something to be announced on that subject in the autumn statement. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the Government will invest £220 million to ease congestion at critical pinch points around the country, but there has been no mention of whether the hard-pressed people of Kent and Essex will benefit from that. In fact, there has been no mention of where that money will be spent at all, so perhaps the Minister will enlighten us today.
To return to the crossing and the recent history, as we have heard, Highways England is still examining the evidence submitted in its consultation process earlier this year on a new lower Thames crossing and has said that the Government will make an announcement later this year. Autumn was mentioned at one stage. Today is a very warm winter’s day, but we are beyond autumn and definitely into winter. The end of the year is imminent, so I am hopeful that the Minister will announce that decision today. I have been studying his countenance carefully to see whether he is a man who seems likely to be bearing good news. We shall see in the next few minutes. He may even find a way of describing the decision as a thing of beauty. Again, I do not know—I live in hope—but if he does not, I hope he will tell us why he cannot tell us and when he might be able to do so.
If the Government are serious about solving Britain’s congestion crisis, they need to get the ball rolling on the major projects that they have promised. The problems in Dartford are reflected across the country, and improving our country’s infrastructure cannot be put on the back burner for any longer.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s remark that many projects need to be addressed. However, if we can focus again on the problems that we are experiencing between Kent and Essex at the existing Dartford crossing, my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) wants the same thing, as I said, but we differ on how that should be achieved. The hon. Gentleman said that we need a decision, and I agree, but it has to be the right decision. Just because option C is something that is being presented does not make it the right thing. It is something and we can get on and make the decision, but if it does not tackle the problem, does he agree that that would be a missed opportunity?
There are limits on how long one can procrastinate. Evidence has clearly been gathered and it is time for the Government to make a decision. They need to end the uncertainty and make a decision on this issue without further delay, because Dartford has suffered from years of under-investment in local road networks and public transport, and the Government need to commit now to immediate investment in the local road network around the location of the new crossing. Local councils need to be assured that they will not be asked to foot the bill for those much needed improvements, which is a major concern, given the levels of cuts to council budgets.
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need a decision, so that we will be able to get on with building a new crossing. Does he agree with me, though, that we needed a decision 15 years ago? The fact that that decision was not made then, and that nothing at all was done about the congestion in Dartford, has resulted in the problems that we experience today.
I see where the hon. Gentleman wishes to lead me, but I will not be tempted to go down that path. All I will say is that the Government are in place today and the Minister is in charge. It is up to him whether to make the decision but I am sure that the hon. Member for Dartford would agree that a decision would be timely, and that having one as soon as possible would be best.
I have been told that Dartford, like so many other places, needs a new traffic and transport plan, taking in road improvement, connectivity and improved public transport provision. As we speak, people who are sitting in their cars in queues at the Dartford crossing will be anxious to hear what the Minister has to say. I hope he can bring them some good news and that he does not disappoint.
What a delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing the debate. As the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who speaks for the Opposition, spoke of seasons, I thought of John Clare, who wrote:
“The winter comes; I walk alone,
I want no bird to sing;
To those who keep their hearts their own
The winter is the spring.”
Perhaps the seasons are what we perceive they are.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said, this is not the first time we have considered these matters in recent weeks. Indeed, on 14 November we had a longish debate on the Floor of the House on exactly this subject, to which he and my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) contributed. None the less, he is right to say that repetition is no sin. Indeed, it is virtuous when it obliges Ministers to consider matters as closely as I have been invited to again today. It is right that we should consider these matters, because we take the issues very seriously.
The Dartford crossing is an important part of the arterial road network and is used extensively by private motorists and hauliers—by those carrying freight, particularly those going to Dover. There are important issues, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said, of congestion and safety. The answer, quite simply, is that we need to do more; I would be the first to acknowledge that. I will talk a bit about some of the things that I have pledged to do when I have spoken about the Dartford crossing in recent weeks, and about what I have done since. Ministers have to be held to account and if they say they are going to do things, they should be expected to deliver on those pledges. I want to reassure those who, like my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford, take a strong view, including many of his constituents, that tackling congestion at Dartford should be a priority and that it is a priority for the Government and for Highways England.
I will start with some of the facts. When my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock talked of evidence, I thought of C.S. Lewis, who said that
“reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
Although the facts are important and I take them very seriously, one should never be the captive of them because, in delivering these kinds of strategic policies, one must exercise—dare I say it—one’s vision too. None the less, let us look at some of the facts with which my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford and others will be well acquainted.
The Dartford crossing has provided the only road crossing of the Thames east of London for more than 50 years. I, too, was familiar with the Blackwall tunnel when there was nothing else, because I grew up in south-east London and used that road many times. The Dartford crossing is one of the busiest roads in the country, used 55 million times a year by commuters, business travellers, haulage companies, emergency services and holidaymakers. It opened in stages—the west tunnel in 1963, the east tunnel in 1980 and the bridge in 1991—in response to the growing traffic demands of the kind the hon. Member for Cambridge described. The existing crossing is at capacity for much of the time and is one of the least reliable sections of England’s strategic road network of motorways and major trunk roads. Congestion and the closure of the existing crossing occur frequently, and I know that this creates significant disruption and pollution, which impacts on businesses and individuals locally.
In the Adjournment debate that I referred to earlier, I mentioned that options for the M25 at Dartford have been considered for a considerable time. Indeed, various methods have been used to help to ease the congestion problems at the crossing. As a response to congestion, in particular on the approach to the payment booths, a cashless payment system called Dart Charge was introduced on 30 November 2014. In fact, Mr Owen, you will remember that I was the Minister at that time, during my first visit to the Department for Transport. I emphasise the word “visit” because all ministerial appointments are visits and nothing more, are they not?
I was pleased with the Dart Charge, knowing that it would help with the flow of traffic, and it has had some impact. The hon. Member for Cambridge made that point, and I will come to the other points he raised in a moment. I do not want to overstate the impact of the Dart Charge, but I think it was the right thing to do and it has had a positive effect. Overall, the Dart Charge and the new road layout have improved journeys through the Dartford crossing and reduced journey times for drivers.
Although I accept that traffic flows have improved from Essex into Kent since the toll booths have been removed, I dispute the argument that they have improved from Dartford into Essex. A lot depends on how those figures are measured. Certainly the people of Dartford have no sense whatever that improvements have come about in anything like the manner that the Minister mentions. They feel, almost universally, that congestion has got worse in Dartford since the toll booths were removed.
Yes, I understand that. I think that is partly because those changes were made against a background of increased demand, so the number of vehicles using the crossing actually continues to grow. In a sense, any improvement will have been mitigated, affected and, for some, concealed by the growing traffic volumes.
In factual terms—the evidence is important—volumes of traffic have grown by more than 5% in the past year. Now, that might sound relatively minor but, given the figures I used earlier, 5% growth in a single year is an extra 2.7 million crossings. It is unsurprising that people see that extra volume of traffic and say that the Dart Charge has made less difference than it actually has because, of course, it is not possible to compare the situation with what it would have been like had we not done it.
It is important to recognise, however, the proper concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford and the profound concerns of those whom he represents. In the end, the issue comes down to the fact that the crossing is operating at over-capacity—something like 117% capacity. Journey times southbound are estimated to be significantly better than before the Dart Charge was introduced, being very nearly five minutes quicker, on average, in the year to August 2016 than the year before.
Northbound, however, we recognise that there is still more to be done. A combination of increased traffic and significant roadworks at junction 30 resulted in only a relatively small improvement in journey times in comparison with journey times prior to the Dart Charge. Anyone who uses the crossing regularly will know that there is a significant difference between the northbound and southbound crossing times. My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock will certainly know that.
I know the Minister is now very aware of some of these issues, as we have debated them on numerous occasions. He cited a figure a moment ago: he said that the crossing is operating at 117% capacity at times. If 14%, which is Highways England’s own figure, were diverted away from that, would that not still mean that the existing crossing would be operating at over-capacity at some times? Ergo, do we not need to increase the capacity at the existing crossing, rather than build something else with other aims in a different place?
I hesitate to intrude on the well-mannered and comradely debate between my hon. Friends the Members for South Basildon and East Thurrock, and for Dartford. It is certainly true that one would need to consider any further crossing eastbound in connection with, and in the context of, Dartford. My hon. Friend is right to isolate those two things. To see them out of context would be an error, and the Government certainly will not do that. It is right to take account of the effect at Dartford of any changes that were made. I would not want my hon. Friend to assume that that is not my view, although I do not think he does.
The approach to the two northbound tunnels also has to be controlled for lorries carrying dangerous goods. For this corner of the south-east, which has more than its fair share of oil and petroleum facilities, a number of petrol tankers use the tunnel. To make this safe passage, the tankers are queued and taken through in a convoy while all other traffic is held. The older west tunnel is a smaller bore and cannot accommodate the taller lorries that travel the network, so the mix of lorries across both tunnels reduces the flow of traffic. That is an important point.
I have said repeatedly, including when we last debated these things, that I would look at what improvements could be made. I related those remarks to the facts that I have just described. I have asked Highways England to look closely at what more can be done to separate vehicles. I understand the concerns of staff about traffic wishing to cross west to east at junction 1A, which I have asked Highways England to look at. We may be able to do further work on the A282, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford knows, and at the junction where gridlock often occurs.
Those are all important matters, and they do not obviate the need for a more strategic solution, but I want to be absolutely sure that, in dealing with the different kinds of vehicles and local people’s access to the crossing, we are doing as much as we can and should do. To that end, I commissioned Highways England to consider those matters more closely. Further work may be possible that would go some way towards alleviating the problems that my hon. Friend has set out.
The safety and performance of the crossing is under constant review to identify other ways to improve conditions. Continuing improvements to the traffic safety system that was introduced as part of Dart Charge, and the management of dangerous goods and abnormal loads, will form part of any further work. I will update hon. Members when I have a report from Highways England about the further steps that it intends to take—that is the right way to go about things.
Managing traffic flow during incidents and reopening lanes as soon as possible afterwards are also important and have often been a cause of concern to local people. I spoke of road signage the last time we debated these matters and, looking at it again, there are issues with the signage on the crossing approaches, particularly northbound. We might be able to do more in that area. We are working with local authorities on both sides of the crossing to improve traffic flows between local and strategic road networks, which has been a perennial issue.
Trying to provide a solution that assists those travelling from far away to far flung destinations who want to cross, as well as addressing the very local traffic in the immediate Kent area and the traffic that moves between Kent and Essex, is important to our consideration of how to get the best outcome. That is not entirely straightforward, but it does not seem impossible to find a way to address both objectives.
Highways England and Kent County Council have a joint approach on a number of improvement measures to junctions used by traffic approaching the crossing from Dartford, which will be familiar to my hon. Friend. The roadworks at junction 30 and the A13, which greatly affected journey times, were substantially completed last week. That should help, and motorists should start to see the benefits of reduced congestion at the crossing and improved journey times as a result.
Plans are also being developed to encourage over-height vehicles to be in the correct lanes. As I mentioned earlier, it is important that HGVs are not stopped and redirected as they cross because that has a significant effect on congestion. We may be able to improve the signage in that respect. As my hon. Friend will be aware, Highways England regularly meets a wide range of stakeholders to discuss other improvements and how they might be implemented. I meet the chief executive of Highways England on a monthly basis, and I keep the performance of this road under regular review. There is more to do, and I will keep my hon. Friend and all hon. Members updated on Highways England’s plans and future actions.
Before I move to my pre-peroration, and then to my exciting peroration itself—I will also say something about the lower Thames crossing—I should say that the hon. Member for Cambridge asked important questions about compliance with the charge, and he deserves answers. Initial compliance, as he will know, is some 93%. He is right about what happens next, and I share his view. He is right that pursuing those in other domains who do not pay the charge is challenging. We do that work, and I often interrogate my officials about their progress. As a specific result of his question, I will make our latest compliance figures available in the Library—again, that is the right thing to do.
The evidence shows that the Dart Charge is working, and 93% initial compliance is indicative of that. When we take into account the people who pay later, the figure is impressive, but any non-compliance is undesirable and it is right that we use every avenue to chase those who do not pay.
In the longer term, the Department for Transport recognises the argument for the lower Thames crossing and the role it might have in easing congestion at Dartford. Highways England consulted on a shortlist of options from 26 January to 24 March, with 47,000 people taking part, making it the largest ever public consultation on a UK road project. No decisions have been made, but I hear what the hon. Gentleman said about the seasons, notwithstanding my admiration for John Clare. It is important that we go further in making our findings and conclusions known. We will take a decision when we have considered those responses, and we will report on the location, route and type of crossing. Subject to the necessary funding and planning approvals, we anticipate that the new crossing, if publicly funded, could be open in 2025.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has once again done the House a service by allowing us to explore these matters. I hope he can tell from what I have already said that the Department and I take the issue very seriously. We are considering all that can be done to ease the circumstances of his constituents, because we know how important this crossing is for them and our country.
The strategic road network is receiving unprecedented attention from this Government, and my hon. Friend will know that the road investment strategy, which I developed when I was last a Transport Minister, is the first time in a long time that a Government have taken a long-term view on how we should invest in roads and then committed funds to that view. In doing so, we are cognisant of changing circumstances and particular places where those circumstances are having an impact on other Government priorities, such as air quality and the perennial and compelling priority of safety. To that end, he can be sure that we will be decisive and determined not only in protecting the interests of all those who use our roads but in doing the right things to make the investment work for the best.
In that spirit, Highways England will continue, on my instruction, to monitor closely conditions at the crossing, to understand the various factors contributing to performance and to ensure that we use this crossing in the most effective and efficient manner.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), and I agree that we all want the same thing. I thank the Minister for his responses. The biggest decision of all, of course, is whether we choose option A or option C. If anyone were to suggest that all the existing London crossings should be put in the same place, we would think them mad. That is effectively what option A offers: more of the same in the same location. Option C would offer an alternative choice to motorists that is not currently available. I ask the Secretary of State for Transport and the Roads Minister to consider that option.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).