Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Mr Deputy Speaker, perhaps you will pass on my thanks to Mr Speaker for granting this important debate. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), to her place, although I am sorry that the roads Minister is a Member of the other place and cannot reply.
There is truly an opportunity for us to save billions of pounds that we are about to spend, unnecessarily in my view, on a new crossing of the Thames to the east of the current one at Dartford, to the east of Gravesend. The original idea behind having another crossing of the Thames was to ease the appalling congestion at Dartford. There cannot be anybody watching the debate or in the Chamber who has not sat for hours and hours trying to cross the Thames at Dartford. As is the way of Government, there have been endless studies and consultations on the best way to stop this awful gridlock on the M25. For years, Ministers have told me privately that the solution is to build another bridge at Dartford to ease the pressure caused by the inadequate north-bound tunnels. After all, the M25 runs through Dartford—it always has and it always will.
There is a huge problem that needs fixing, and that is how the traffic gets past the River Thames at Dartford and through Thurrock. During the course of those years of study, other options were explored—one would expect that—including a crossing some miles further down the river to the east of Gravesend. When Kent and Essex County Councils realised that a crossing further down the Thames from Dartford was in the offing, they made sure that the consideration was turbocharged, seeing massive economic benefits to both counties if they had a link road between them—that is understandable. So, slowly, the project morphed from one about how to fix the traffic at Dartford to one about economic development for Kent and Essex, with, to them, the secondary consideration that this economic development tunnel and new road network would also have the effect of reducing some of the pressure at Dartford, and also providing resilience.
I do not disagree with my hon. Friend’s analysis of how we ended up with this route, but does he agree that it is all very well for Kent and Essex to draw a line as to where that road should go when it actually goes through Thurrock, to which they are not accountable? If they were really genuinely interested in supporting it, they should work towards the optimum route.
That is an extremely good point, and I wish that I had included it in my speech. If I have to speak about this again, I will make that point. I thank my hon. Friend and I totally agree with her.
This all became about economic development. The original purpose of easing traffic became secondary. The aims of the project changed completely, which meant that the problems at Dartford were no longer the priority—in fact, they became a secondary consideration. Then, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), the then Transport Secretary, opted for Kent and Essex’s preferred option, which will do nothing to ameliorate the situation at Dartford and will be yet another massive piece of Government spending on road infrastructure just at the moment in our history when roads are to be optimised by level 5 autonomous vehicles. The way I think of it is that if we look across the rooftops of London we see thousands of chimneys, none of them used any more. This road will end up a white elephant like them in future—and not far in the future.
First, the lower Thames crossing does not address the problems on the M25 at the Dartford crossing or provide any resilience in any way, shape or form. I will explain why. The M25 northbound at Dartford remains one of Europe’s worst traffic jams on a major national road—I imagine all hon. Members, even the Minister, can picture themselves there, having sat in those traffic jams.
The problems at the Dartford crossing are primarily caused by the outdated and undersized northbound tunnels. The southbound traffic coming over the bridge moves at pretty much the same speed as the rest of the motorway; it is not immune to traffic jams, but neither is the rest of the system. The problem is the tunnels. The left-hand one is 4.8 metres high and the right-hand one is 5 metres high. They are the cause of the horrendous jams, because no fuel tankers or hazardous loads are permitted unescorted, and no vehicles over 5 metres high are permitted at all.
What happens is that we end up with traffic, including very large vehicles, weaving and causing frequent accidents and incidents, as well as frequent red traffic lights to hold the rest of the traffic in order to extract an over-height vehicle that has managed to go through. Then, of course, a couple of times an hour all the traffic on the M25 going north is stopped, because they have to run the convoys with fuel tankers and hazardous materials in them. That causes congestion and queuing, and hardly a day goes by without a major incident bringing the M25 to a complete standstill and causing gridlock at Dartford.
The lower Thames crossing, the one to the east of Gravesend, does not address those problems at all, nor does it provide a satisfactory alternate route for M25 traffic. Let us note, by the way, that the M25 is not complete—it stops just before Dartford and becomes an A road, and then becomes the M25 again. We have not actually finished building the M25 yet.
Once the lower Thames crossing is built, the Dartford crossing will still be operating at capacity and the problems there will continue. The long-suffering residents and businesses of Dartford will continue to suffer, and I believe they are being hoodwinked. We must sort out the problem of Dartford first and foremost, either with the originally promised relatively cheap and cheerful bridge for northbound traffic, or with a variant of option A14, which is the idea to have a big tunnel going underneath Dartford and Thurrock, separating all the national, long-range traffic, so the existing crossings could be used by residents of Dartford, Thurrock and so on.
Secondly, we have been assured that having a completely different crossing will provide resilience, so what will happen when the incidents continue to happen on the northbound bit of the Dartford tunnel approaches? As soon as traffic on the M25 comes to a standstill, it will seek an alternate route to the lower Thames crossing, but to exit the M25 at junction 2, the junction just before, it will have to go through a traffic light-controlled roundabout, which will be totally inadequate for the volume of traffic.
Having negotiated that obstacle, traffic will head east towards Gravesend only to find that, unbelievably, there will be just one lane from the A2 to the lower Thames crossing tunnel to take traffic into Essex. Not only will Dartford be gridlocked, but so will Gravesend and the whole of the A2 eastbound from M25 junction 2.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way, and he is now getting to the nub of the problems with the design of the lower Thames crossing. It is being applied as a piece of national infrastructure without sufficient thought to the impact on the local road networks in his constituency and mine and that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe). He highlights the lack of connectivity beautifully. For my residents in South Ockendon, if we have a tailback going south and the traffic backs up, not only do they face congestion at the Dartford crossing, but the lower Thames crossing arrives at Ockendon, so residents there will be subject to congestion from both crossings.
Absolutely. In a sense, my hon. Friend’s residents and those over in Essex are having it very badly with all the additional roads to be built as well, so I completely concur. We have established that when Dartford is gridlocked, so will Gravesend be, and her area at Ockendon.
With junction 2 of the M25 blocked, the M25 traffic will seek an alternative route to the lower Thames crossing. We will then find that the A227, and all the villages and lanes approaching the new crossing, will become choked with traffic. Just to be clear, although the project is terminal for my hamlet of Thong and terrible for the people of much of Riverview Park and the villages that will become rat-runs, the worst will be for the residents of Dartford—more on that later.
Of course it is absolutely correct that the new crossing will provide a useful alternative for traffic heading to and from the ferry port of Dover, but that is all. Channel tunnel traffic will still try to use the M20 and the M25 and so will still use the Dartford crossing. There is more. National Highways is busy planning another kick in the teeth to motorists once the new crossing is built. In its wisdom, it intends to split the A2 and M2 into two separate two-lane highways midway between the A227 and Marling Cross. The outer two lanes will be for M2 traffic going down deeper into Kent; the inner two lanes will be for the A2 to Strood and the lower Thames crossing, and the Hoo peninsula. That is a recipe for disaster. Not only will it cause dangerous weaving and accidents while the traffic tries to get into the correct lane, but the A2 will be narrowed to two lanes, which is completely inadequate for traffic heading towards the M2 at peak periods. It is ridiculous. In 2009, Highways England actually widened the A2 at this point from three lanes to four lanes to cope with increased volumes, and now the proposal is to narrow it to two lanes.
Let me return to the contention of Kent and Essex County Councils that this crossing would bring large economic benefits. The cost of the project for central Government has increased from £3.72 billion in 2016 to £8.2 billion now. We make these throwaway comments about billions, but imagine having a stack of a million £1 coins and then creating 8,200 stacks of £1 coins. That is an enormous amount of money, and because the project is no longer being privately funded, it is taxpayers’ money. We have a cost of living crisis. Every time people go into a garage or a shop, or pay their income tax, the money for this white elephant is coming off them. It is a financial turkey right now and truly it will be a transport white elephant in a decade—and it will inevitably end up costing more.
The cost-benefit analysis carried out in 2016 had mysteriously changed from the analysis carried out in 2013 to show a benefit of the lower Thames crossing of 2.4. But in 2013, the cost-benefit analysis supported the Dartford option and was against a crossing east of Gravesend, which then apparently provided a benefit of 1.1. Somewhere along the way the figures magically changed to suit the argument. Anyway, at a new cost of £8 billion, any benefit must now be marginal at best. I can completely understand why that might not matter too much to Kent and Essex County Councils, because it is not money from their budgets, but it is the money of hundreds of millions of people who will remain sitting snarled in their cars in traffic jams at Dartford over the coming decades. Far from a new crossing away from Dartford being a victory for the people of Dartford, they are now condemned to decades more noise and pollution. An intergenerational chance to sort out the M25 has been blown by muddled thinking and a political class in local government thinking only of their own political lifetimes. Now would seem to be an appropriate time to carry out an in-depth review to determine whether to proceed with the lower Thames crossing or to go back to the drawing board, sort out the M25 at Dartford and relieve the taxpayer of accruing yet more unnecessary debt for their children and great-grandchildren to repay.
The crossing will not prevent the delays, incidents and gridlock at Dartford, and it will not provide an alternate route for M25 traffic. It is a massive missed opportunity for the people of Dartford, who will have to endure more decades of misery until finally either the northbound bridge or the long tunnel under Dartford and Thurrock is built—one or the other will have to be built eventually. Indeed, I believe that the current tunnels are close to the end of their design life, so why are we building a white elephant further down?
The crossing is far too expensive at £8.2 billion and does not represent value for money for taxpayers. As we have discussed and I have outlined, better, less expensive solutions are available. I urge the Minister to think it through herself and stop listening to Highways England before it is too late and we commit all that money unnecessarily. If there were ever an opportunity for a Secretary of State to put a red line through a massive piece of spending, this is it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) on securing this important debate. It seems a little like groundhog day, because my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) and I have been talking about the project for probably about 15 years since its first iteration came forward in about 2007. Here we are again talking about its shortcomings and it potentially not delivering what it set out to do.
Since the beginning, I have been clear that I have deep reservations about the project. I still have those reservations, because I remain unconvinced that the new proposed lower Thames crossing will do what it set out to do, which is fundamentally to relieve congestion at the existing Dartford crossing, where we know there are problems. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham has explained, it only needs the wind to blow a bit too hard or the wrong sort of vehicle to turn up and we end up with serious and catastrophic congestion. Some improvements may well come from building a lower Thames crossing as proposed, because it will move some vehicles away—I cannot remember the current figure; I think it is about 22% of existing use—but the existing crossing will still be above design capacity.
I probably have the joy of having spent more time in the congestion caused by the Dartford crossing than any other hon. Member save my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway), who often used to get stuck in it when he came to see me during election time, but that is another story.
One issue that causes congestion at the Dartford crossing is the inadequate supporting road infrastructure around junction 30, particularly the fact that there are no east-facing slips at Lakeside on to the A13, which adds further traffic to that busy junction and adds to the pressure on the Dartford crossing. Does my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) agree that we could get a lot of bang for our buck and release capacity at Dartford if we fixed the local issues around junction 30?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The east-facing slips are absolutely vital; we must build them. People are coming down the A13 and round junction 30 to go back to Lakeside, which is utter madness, so we certainly need to do that. There are also issues locally because three different agencies deal with the roads round there: Highways England, Thurrock Council and Essex County Council not far past the Thurrock boundary. Local roads interact with the main network of roads but no one controls all the various pressure points. When the existing crossing fails, it may only be one set of traffic lights somewhere on one of the industrial estates that is causing such catastrophic congestion, because it was designed to allow through a far smaller number of vehicles than are trying to use it when there is a failure.
As I have highlighted over the years and as the Thames Crossing Action Group has highlighted, this is a destructive project, it is costly and it is environmentally damaging. It is destructive because it will put on the Essex side a vast amount of new concrete road leading from the Thames all the way up to the junction with the A127. It is very costly, as we have heard, at £8.2 billion. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham described his 8,200 towers of 1 million coins very aptly. If I had time, I could work out the volume of that, but it is a vast amount of money. Of course, the project is environmentally damaging not only in the amount of construction work that will go on, but, I think, in inviting more vehicles into the area. I know that the lower Thames crossing team are keen to decarbonise, but it cannot be built without having a huge impact on our local environment.
We have time, but I do not want to detain the House too long. The fundamental problem as far as I see it, looking back to when the route was confirmed in 2017, is that the proposal as it stands does very little to address the fundamental problem at the existing crossing. The commitment one will have to make to the new crossing, as it is so far away from the existing crossing, means that thousands of vehicles will be beyond the point of no return, and my hon. Friend described junction 2—of the A2 or the M2?
People will be trapped inside an area that they cannot escape from. I once heard, on one of my visits to Thurrock, that the congestion when the existing crossing fails backs up at the rate of a mile a minute. That is extraordinary, but it is because of the volume of traffic, with so much traffic trying to get through that pressure point.
I am deeply concerned that, if and when the new lower Thames crossing gets built, it will not actually address the problem. When it does not address that problem and we have spent £8.2 billion on it—I suspect the costs will go up—people will rightly look at us and say, “How on earth have you spent £8.2 billion on a project that still means, on the very rare occasions when there is a catastrophic failure, that people end up having to sleep in IKEA?” That is a true fact: once the congestion was so bad that nothing could move, IKEA opened its doors, and people slept in its beds and on its sofas.
Does my hon. Friend recall that, two days before Christmas in 2013, the congestion killed Lakeside on the busiest shopping day of the year? We actually ended up with a surfeit of turkeys in Thurrock because no one could get to the supermarket to get one.
I think that is hard to forget, and it was catastrophic. Of course, it is damaging to local business, because once people think that such catastrophic congestion happens in and around Lakeside in the run-up to Christmas, they avoid it and want to go somewhere else.
Whatever we do, it has to address those problems. I am really concerned that it will not, and people will ask us why it has not, so we will be back here, after however long it may take for this thing to get built, apologising and asking what we are going to do about it and how we can address the problem.
I am conscious of the time, so I will not go on for too long, but I am particularly worried about air quality issues. We already suffer with poor air quality along the Thames estuary. That is not all to do with motoring; some of it is to do with shipping, and some is to do with industrial activity in northern Europe and fumes blowing across. However, in one ward in Stanford in my constituency, the level of particulate matter in the air is about three times the national average. It is one of the poorest air quality areas in the UK, and I cannot believe, regardless of whether we move to electric and autonomous vehicles, that encouraging more traffic into the area—giving off particulates from brake discs, tyres and the road surface—will improve that air quality.
With all that said, there are potentially some positives. I would like to thank the lower Thames crossing team generally for their interaction with me. They are delivering what the Government have asked them to do, and they are trying to do that in the best way they can. They want to consult and to engage with the public, and I want to thank them for that. That does not mean I necessarily think it is the right project, because as we have heard, it has the potential to be a white elephant. In future there will be changes to the way we move freight, and a drive to use more rail to move freight around. As we improve signalling and move to a more digital railway, the capacity of that railway will increase to allow us to move more freight.
We must also take into account the pandemic, and the effect it has had on people’s desire to work from home and travel less. Will we actually need this capacity where it is proposed, or should we be having a rethink? If this project goes ahead there are opportunities for businesses—indeed, if any small businesses in Thurrock, Essex, Kent or Gravesham are not aware of this, there is a supply chain school, and large tier 1 contractors are looking for local businesses to help them deliver this. If the project does proceed, I welcome the fact that there will be apprenticeship and training opportunities.
In conclusion, for all the reasons I have stated I remain unconvinced about the lower Thames crossing. It will be destructive, costly, and environmentally unfriendly, but my primary objection is that I do not believe it will work. We will still get congestion at the existing Dartford crossing for all the reasons we have heard, and we will be back here trying to find a solution, having spent £8.2 billion on something that might benefit those who want to get from Dover to Cambridge, but will not benefit those who want to get from Gravesham to Thurrock. After 15 years of discussing this, I ask the Department for Transport and the relevant Ministers to please look long and hard at whether what is being proposed still aligns with what it set out to achieve.
I do not plan to speak for as long as colleagues. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) for securing this debate. I listened carefully to his points and those of other colleagues, and I know his passion for representing the lovely people of Gravesham in Kent. Alongside other colleagues, he continues to lobby the Government and National Highways to secure improvements and mitigations from the crossing.
For those less familiar with the geography of south-east England, my own wonderful constituency of Old Bexley and Sidcup is on the edge of south-east London and north Kent, and the most southerly point of Bexley lies roughly 12 miles from the proposed crossing. The busy A2, which runs through the centre of my constituency, is the main road link to the existing crossing at Dartford— that is the problematic one we have heard about—and the proposed crossing to the east of Gravesend. I therefore know the area fairly well, as well as the challenges we face with congestion, albeit to a lesser extent than colleagues who are at the coalface when these issues occur.
My hon. Friend mentioned the expansive consultation done by the team at the lower Thames crossing. They have had somewhere in the region of 47,000 responses, which shows the lengths to which they have gone to engage with the wider population in Essex, Kent and south-east London who will be impacted by the proposed crossing. The team deserves a lot of credit for their extensive work, and they engaged with me in my role as a councillor in Bexley long before I even became a Member of this place. They have done a lot of good work in trying to engage with the local community. We all experience the traffic build up and congestion at Dartford, which can cause great misery—indeed, we heard about an extreme case.
My hon. Friend is right to say there has been extensive consultation, but it has been pursued on the basis that this is a national infrastructure project, so it has been a national consultation. Does he agree that rather more attention should have been paid to representations made by the local community, instead of treating all representations the same?
I completely agree, and everyone who is directly impacted should have their voices heard. I hope that the Department will listen closely to those calls. Getting that balance right between a national project and the local impact is difficult for any Government.
Dartford congestion causes complete misery, backing up even as far as where I am in Bexley. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham said, if the wind blows one way or the other way, the bridge closes and we have congestion, and it is complete misery for people, whether they are commuting home or trying to see family on either side of the bridge. As our population continues to grow in south-east London, Kent and Essex, it is vital that we secure the supporting infrastructure and make sure it is in place to support the people in these areas—both the current population and the new population who might be moving in.
Today’s focus is on transport, but the issue extends far wider. My big cause is ensuring that we secure the health provision we need for the growing population of Old Bexley and Sidcup. We have to ensure that, as a country and a Government focused on levelling up, our part of south-east England is not forgotten.
My hon. Friend mentioned, as I should have, that when the wind blows the bridge going from north to south can be closed; that was one of the arguments deployed in favour of having the second crossing further down. But I would have thought that that could be simply remedied. If we had what we should have had—a new bridge going from south to north, so we would have two bridges—we would still have two tunnels. In extremis, those could be used.
Anyway, the new bridge will have a new design to sort out the wind issue. We would still have two tunnels that could be used going from north to south in the event of inclement weather. I just wanted to address that other nonsense that has been raised.
I clearly do not have the same level of detail about that issue, but I take my hon. Friend’s point, which is valid. We must ensure that whatever is introduced stands up to scrutiny and actually works. That is the main point of today’s debate. All MPs in the area recognise that something needs to be done; the issue is working out what that is and how it will work best and have the most impact.
In conclusion, we all see clearly that the Mayor of London is failing miserably at one of his primary objectives: to keep London moving. He has been closing roads and creating far greater congestion. As a Government, and particularly as Conservatives, we have to ensure—I implore Ministers to meet all relevant colleagues—that the project has maximum impact and delivers the goal that we all want to achieve: solving the congestion at the Dartford crossing and its impact on our communities and neighbourhoods, whether in south-east London, Kent or Essex.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway), a most assiduous Member, on securing this debate about the lower Thames crossing and on raising views so sincerely and diligently, as he clearly has for many years. I also congratulate the other local MPs here, collaborating and giving one view on the need to improve the situation at Dartford crossing.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) and for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French); I believe that this is the first time I have responded to my relatively new hon. Friend, and it is a pleasure to do so. He welcomed the prospect of future meetings with the relevant Minister—that is, the roads Minister Baroness Vere, who sits in the other place. I will endeavour to ensure that that meeting happens because I recognise the strength of feeling in the Chamber tonight, and it would be most helpful.
I have listened carefully to my hon. Friends’ representations about the scheme. I hope that my response provides some of the answers, but I recognise that it will probably not resolve the issues here and now. I want to set out and highlight the opportunities and possibilities that the lower Thames crossing will provide.
I beg my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham’s forgiveness for reflecting briefly on how the need for the lower Thames crossing arose. He has covered that pretty well already, as have other speakers, but for over 50 years the Dartford crossing has provided the only road crossing of the Thames east of London. Dartford is regularly used by 180,000 vehicles per day, despite being designed for 135,000. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock mentioned when IKEA came to the rescue of motorists; I put on the record my thanks to the company for doing that. Clearly, however, what happened was not a desirable outcome.
Put simply, the road is significantly over-capacity. It is now one of the busiest in the country, used by commuters, business travellers, haulage companies, the emergency services and holidaymakers alike. It connects communities and businesses, providing a vital link between the channel ports, London and the rest of the UK and enabling local businesses to operate effectively—or it should. It connects people on both sides of the river with work, education, leisure and one another.
In summary, as has been said so eloquently, it is a critical part of the UK’s major road network, carrying local, national and international traffic. Furthermore, despite the unprecedented circumstances of the past few years due to the pandemic, the Dartford crossing has played a key role by carrying more food and goods than ever before. We are all well aware that, unfortunately, due to its age, the Dartford crossing has restrictions on hazardous goods vehicles. They have to be convoyed through, causing even more delays for everyone. As we have heard, that occurs frequently. Together with congestion and a lack of alternative transport links, that creates significant disruption and pollution.
There is one way that we could release more capacity at the existing Dartford crossing. The Minister set out the figures well and the crossing is carrying more traffic than it was built for. One of the reasons why is that people such as me have to travel to Kent by car, because there is no other link, apart from a tiny little ferry between Gravesend and Tilbury. There is no train link, for example, yet HS1 travels between Kent and Essex. Will she go back to the Department and look more creatively at how we can join up other methods of transport to get that capacity, so that we can shift residents away from using the crossing?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Government’s priority is to enable more of those journeys to be walked and cycled and for public transport to be used. Reference was made to the future of transport. We will introduce legislation on self-driving vehicles and so on, so we will see significant improvements in this area. As the Minister responsible for decarbonisation and the future of transport, I would be delighted to work with her to identify where the opportunities for better public transport and active travel may be.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) had had more time, I think she would have made a point about why on earth all these freight trains carrying trucks from the continent offload at Folkestone. They should rumble on north. That is an absolute no-brainer and we should do that anyway.
Similarly, I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss freight and how we might improve it, and I look forward to that meeting. As we have heard, the situation at the Dartford tunnel negatively impacts on communities and businesses locally, regionally and elsewhere in the UK. In view of those challenges, the need for the lower Thames crossing remains clear at this stage. In addition, the strategic importance of the Dartford crossing is increasing and now supports the change in working and shopping patterns in England.
Let me give the House some statistics. Some 42% of vehicles using the Dartford crossing are now goods vehicles, which has gone up from 33% in 2019. December 2020 saw the busiest day ever recorded for heavy goods vehicle traffic, which is now consistently above 2019 levels. Furthermore, that supports the point about the conversation that is needed with my hon. Friend and other Members about how we can improve the freight situation and put more of that freight on to the rail network.
The need to increase capacity east of London is greater than ever. That is exactly what the lower Thames crossing hopes to address.
This is the muddled thinking we have got to: if we build another crossing further down, it will take the pressure off Dartford. However, it will not take the pressure off Dartford because people will still want to use the Dartford crossing. Spending £8.2 billion to build that white elephant will not address the current problems at Dartford.
If people think it is a good idea at some point next year to have a crossing east of Gravesend, for economic development purposes and so on, I say “By all means do it”, but a bridge has to be built northbound at Dartford, because people are still going to use it. The M25 is still going to go through Dartford, and we will see exactly the situation to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) has referred. There will still be convoys going through twice an hour. There will still be oversized vehicles at red traffic lights, and hundreds of millions of people will still spend time stuck in traffic for the next three decades. I say, “Sort out Dartford, and then by all means build the crossing. My constituents will not be happy, but do Dartford first.”
No one could deny that my hon. Friend is passionate and frustrated, and knows his area incredibly well. I hope that the meeting with the roads Minister will happen swiftly so that he can make that point to her as well.
The lower Thames crossing will consist of the longest road tunnel in the UK, between north Kent and south Essex, and will include 14.3 miles of new road linking the M2/A2, A13 and M25. By almost doubling road capacity across the River Thames east of London, it will cut traffic using the Dartford crossing by 22%, and will provide national road freight with a reliable new connection.
That is an impressive statistic— 14.3 miles of new road—but there is an impact from that road on the communities that it will cut through. There is also great concern among potential users of the new road about the designation that it will have. Will it be an A road or a motorway? If it is to be a motorway, will it be a smart motorway, and is there not a moratorium on the introduction of new smart motorways? There is still a fair amount of confusion among local people, first about whether it will solve the problem, and secondly about whether it will be safe to use.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, but I am going to make progress now. Hopefully some of his points will be addressed as I proceed, but if they are not, the roads Minister will be able to deal with those specific matters.
As we have heard, congested motorways and major trunk roads are causing misery to hundreds of thousands of people every week. It is currently predicted that the lower Thames crossing will reduce the number of heavy goods vehicles at the Dartford crossing by providing a more attractive route for many vehicles travelling to and from manufacturing centres, distribution hubs and ports. Moreover, the safety systems and the size of the lower Thames crossing tunnel mean that it can accommodate all HGVs and three lanes of traffic in both directions, reducing the need for vehicles carrying hazardous goods to use the Dartford crossing, causing congestion-related delays to other road users. The proposed crossing will relieve congestion by diverting more than 13.5 million vehicles away from Dartford every year. That is what makes the strategic case for it so clear.
I took the opportunity to speak to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson)—who, unfortunately, is unable to take part in this debate—and to hear his support for the scheme. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham is aware of that, and I hope he does not mind my referring to it.
Let me now say something about the route selection. On 12 April 2017, the Secretary of State for Transport announced the preferred route for the lower Thames crossing. His announcement followed a comprehensive review of options and extensive analysis of more than 47,000 responses to the 2016 public consultation. I am pleased that all the Members present today recognise the efforts that the project team have put into communicating with Members, local leaders and the wider community.
I entirely agree with what the Minister has just said. The team has been exemplary in their engagement with us—with one small exception, which I want to put on record. I refer to the way in which they compensate people whose homes they are acquiring. They say that this is because they are bound by regulation.
There is a great discrepancy between the valuations of the Valuation Office and local valuations. What concerns me is that those who work for the Valuation Office on a regional basis, while having the best of intentions, do not know what the situation on the ground is. Value is often demonstrated by market testing, but when a house is blighted because it is going to be affected by the lower Thames crossing, there is no way of market testing it. I would appreciate a specific action point to look at whether we can find a way of compensating people more generously—not making them overly wealthy, just taking into account local valuations rather than regional ones.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I would be grateful to receive further details of the homes or specific communities he feels are affected. That would be much appreciated.
Since the preferred route was announced, and following the withdrawal of the development consent order in 2020, National Highways has continued to work extensively with stakeholders—including my hon. Friends, as we have heard today—to improve and refine the scheme. This has been part of a comprehensive programme of consultation, and in addition to the consultation in 2016, it has included four further consultations since 2018, with 26 consultation events in Gravesham, 100 across the whole project and more than 30,000 responses. I am pleased that Members have referenced their gratitude for the effort that has gone into the consultation.
There is more to come. A further targeted consultation will take place after the local elections in May to engage stakeholders and local residents and to ensure that they will have their views heard on the use of Tilbury Fields following the positive resolution of a land clash. This will be the fifth public consultation, showing that National Highways is continually listening to those impacted by the scheme to ensure that they benefit as much as possible. Further work with parliamentarians has resulted in 11 parliamentary forums designed to bring local and regional MPs together at key project milestones between the contact programme of one-to-one briefing meetings. The forum series started in 2017, with the most recent forum being held this month. As a result of the tireless work by everyone, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham and the other Members who are in the Chamber tonight, National Highways has made several key changes in the constituency of Gravesham, including several requests that my hon. Friend put forward in an Adjournment debate in 2017 regarding the design and development of the lower Thames crossing.
I would also like to extend my gratitude on behalf of the Department to Councillor Bob Lane for his engagement.
In summary, the improvements that have been made include the removal of the A226 junction from National Highways’ proposals, limiting potential rat-running on local roads as well as reducing the overall footprint of newly proposed junctions. Also, the southern portals south of the A226 are being moved. Since 2017, National Highways has made significant changes to the lower Thames crossing design to limit its visual impact. The tunnel itself has been lengthened by around 1 km, and the route has been lowered or hidden behind earth bunds. Now, around 50% of the route in Gravesham is in the tunnel and 80% of the entire route is hidden from view, either in tunnels or cuttings or behind earth bunds.
To maximise the use of green corridors to reduce noise pollution and environmental impact, National Highways is planning to provide new or improved green spaces and pathways for communities in Gravesham to enjoy. This includes plans to build Chalk Park, a new 40 hectare green space in Gravesham that will provide a new public space for the local communities in Chalk and Riverview, including new landforms with views across the Thames estuary. It will also create a green buffer between those communities and the road, improve biodiversity through the planting of grassland and woodland, reuse significant amounts of excavated material from the construction route and reduce carbon and HGV journeys.
If I truly believed this was the right thing to address the congestion at Dartford and nationally, I would man up and say to my constituents, “I’m really sorry that your house will be blighted by all this noise.” I would do that, but I do not believe this is the right thing to do. Whatever happens, we will have to go back and build a bridge at Dartford because the M25 runs through Dartford.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.
There are 20 km of new or improved pathways for walkers, cyclists and equestrians. There are three new green bridges, one of which is 84 metres wide—one of the largest in Europe—connecting this network of pathways to the area’s rich mosaic of parks and woodland.
Members have expressed their discontent with the proposed road—that is loud and clear—and, straight after this Adjournment debate, I will reflect that to the roads Minister. As everyone has agreed, there is a clear need to address the challenge at Dartford crossing, and the lower Thames crossing aims to relieve congestion and provide resiliency to the strategic road network.
I am sure all hon. Members agree that we must plan not just for the short term but for the medium and long term.
No one can doubt the sincerity with which my hon. Friend has addressed all the points raised in this debate, but at the heart of this is a very unsatisfactory planning and consultation process. The Department needs to reflect on that. Thurrock has big ambitions for jobs and new homes, but we cannot settle our local plan during an ongoing consultation process. As she outlines, we will now need to have another consultation. While we are addressing these issues with the lower Thames crossing, other Departments are attacking Thurrock for not making further progress. Can we make sure that we join up to consider the real local impact of national infrastructure? That has been missing from this process.
I thank my hon. Friend. All hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon have been clear, collaborative and collegiate in representing their constituencies. The Department continues to support the lower Thames crossing as part of one of the biggest programmes of investment in the strategic road network in a generation.
I have set out how we are supporting road users by investing in our motorways and major A roads to relieve congestion, to support local communities and to facilitate economic growth locally, regionally and nationally. We believe that supporting this project is the right decision for the people of Kent and the people of the UK as a whole.
The Department supports the lower Thames crossing, but I recognise—who could not?—the alternative views of the Members in the Chamber this afternoon, and they have been well and truly heard by me, my Department and the roads Minister, and I am sure by National Highways and their constituents.
Question put and agreed to.