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Dartford River Crossings

Volume 750: debated on Thursday 5 December 2013

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to construct a further bridge near the current Dartford river crossings.

My Lords, I am very grateful for having obtained this debate, although I am a bit disappointed that we do not have more speakers, given the importance of the Dartford crossing. Around 50 million people cross it every year, so it is of vital importance to the whole national economy, not just to the south-east. So it is a bit disappointing that there are not more speakers—but it is quality rather than quantity, perhaps.

Today is perhaps an opportune day for this discussion. I have just had messages that parts of Essex are being evacuated because of potential flooding this evening due to the tidal system. Places that were flooded before, in 1953—the Tendring area, Jaywick, Foulness Island and parts of Southend—are being evacuated, and people are being taken from their homes. I hope I am going to be able to get back to Essex when we finish this tonight. It is also an opportune time to be discussing this because it was 50 years ago last week that the first tunnel opened. I will speak a bit more about that later. Looking through the briefing today, I see the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, got in quicker than me and asked a Written Question about this a week or so ago. It got an unsatisfactory Answer, but I will talk a bit more about that later as well. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has a particular interest from his past ministerial experience.

I declare an interest only as a user of the crossing, having lived in Essex all my life. Until the tunnel was opened, of course, the only way across other than coming through the middle of London was by the Tilbury ferry. My father, grandfather and great-grandfather were fruit farmers in Essex—and where do you buy fruit trees but Maidstone in Kent? I had many enjoyable crossings as a child on the Tilbury ferry. It was quite an adventure to go to Kent on the Tilbury ferry when I was small. Unfortunately, it probably takes longer now to go through the Dartford Tunnel sometimes than it did on the ferry, when it was operative. A year or two ago, I stood in the car park of the hotel that overlooks the crossing on the Kent side, and saw the congestion, the fumes, and all the other problems of the crossing, particularly where the pay kiosks are. It showed that there is a real environmental problem attached to this. I hope that we get some further answers from the noble Baroness on progress and the process of how this is going to happen.

I was a long-serving member of Essex County Council and leader of it for some years. Some 50 years ago, Kent and Essex got together to build the first tunnel for the crossing, with European funding. The two county councils then built another tunnel, and introduced tolls. It was then sort of nationalised by the Government to build the bridge. The two county councils offered to build the bridge, but the Government decided to do it. I must say that it was done very quickly. From the consultation to when the Queen opened it—it is called the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge—took only four years. During that time, I was chairman of policy and then, when the bridge opened, chairman of the county council, and I was officiating when the Queen opened the bridge. So I remember it all very well; the bridge immediately solved the problem.

On some days now, traffic at the crossing is 70,000 vehicles more than was planned for, so the congestion is acute. I know that any time when I try to cross it—mainly for social reasons now—I almost dread it, particularly coming back on the Kent side. Something needs to be done. The answer to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was 2025. That is a long way away, so what is going to happen? If the economy improves, what is going to happen during that time? It only needs one accident to cause four or five hours’ delay. Even on a normal day, there can be a lot of delay at peak times. What is this costing our country?

At the moment the crossing is making a lot of profit. The bridge was all paid for in 2002 and, since then, there has been a big surplus from the toll money over the cost of maintaining the crossing. There are suggestions that it might be as much as £60 million a year. I know that it is important and it goes into the general fund, which is supposed to be spent on local improvements, but we have not seen that many local improvements worth £60 million a year in south Essex or north Kent. Therefore, there is money around that could be used to finance a new crossing, although the Chancellor might not like it. I did not hear whether it was announced today that the Dartford crossing was one of the areas they were going to put infrastructure money into, but there is money around from the current crossing that could be used to construct a new bridge.

There is obviously some enthusiasm from the Government. They came out with the consultation paper in the summer and suggested several options. I think the majority of consultants wanted option C, which is the one I could support. Kent, particularly, would like a sort of option C plus, bringing in the road from Dover, which I support, with the traffic there. On the other hand, that could take another 20 years to achieve, and something needs to be done about the crossing now.

When I was involved in Essex County Council, I went backwards and forwards across the Thames in a helicopter looking at potential crossing sites. Clearly the only one that could be built fairly quickly and link into current roads is the one fairly close to the existing crossing. Further down the Thames, that area of Kent is barren marshland, and it would need a lot of roads and a lot of money spent on it. One could achieve a junction into the A2/M2 and the A13 in Essex on a new bridge relatively easily, with some improvement works. It could be done without taking too much time. I hope the Minister will comment on that in her reply.

As I said, time is of the essence. The consultation is there and the Government have said that they are going to announce a result by the end of the year. We are only about three weeks away from the end of the year, so I hope we might get some indication today of when that announcement might be. It is something that we can all benefit from.

There are various debates about how much this problem is costing the economy now. Obviously with all this congestion and the hours that commercial and private vehicles and people doing their day-to-day jobs spend in these queues, the suggestion is that it could be around £40 million a year. I believe that it costs the economy more than that. KPMG has done some work suggesting that we could improve the economy by several billions of pounds by building a bridge, so there is a lot of potential.

A new bridge, built fairly quickly, would help with three things. It would help the environment and the economy, very considerably, and with the problem of housing. A new bridge built along the lines of option C would generate land that could be used for affordable and other housing fairly quickly. We could be talking about 25,000 houses that we desperately need in the margins of the London area. They could be built on the land released by building a new bridge. The whole thing is of tremendous benefit, and the sooner we can do something and actually create a bridge for those three reasons the better. We should not wait until 2025.

I have probably said all that I can today. I have more notes here but, given that Essex may be being flooded and there may be no trains home, we should get on with the debate. I thank everyone for listening to me, and I hope that the Minister can give us some answers to the things that I have been talking about.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, on achieving this debate. It is timely. There is a consultation out on the river crossings. He asked the Minister a question about the end of the year, but he did not say which year. I am sure that we will hear that when the Minister responds.

It is quite clear that there is a traffic problem east of London because of the growth. I met an expert in these things recently who said that the centre of gravity of the population of London was now some five miles east of the City. That surprised me slightly, but maybe the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and his colleagues from Essex will confirm that. I do not know, but industry and business are moving east beyond Canary Wharf, so there is clearly a demand.

My concern, starting with demand and forecasting, is about the way the department does its road forecasts, which I have mentioned before. I put a Question down on it today, not in respect of this debate but generally. The briefing for the debate gives Highways Agency figures for the Essex-Kent traffic from April 2012 to March 2013. It states that,

“the traffic was down one and a half million vehicles”,

from 49 million. That was confirmed by the number of trips and everything.

One has to ask why. Maybe it is to do with the congestion. Why has the traffic gone down? Maybe it is to do with the tolls. I believe that the tolls will be changed quite soon, which is something that we managed to achieve in legislation about a year ago, which is very good. But it is extraordinary that the Highways Agency is still quoted as saying:

“While the amount of traffic using the Dartford Thurrock River Crossing has decreased slightly over the last few years, traffic flows are expected to increase by a fifth over the next 30 years, due to the anticipated development in the Thames Gateway region”.

I could just about believe that if the Department for Transport forecasting team had not been producing forecasts of road traffic growth for the past 20 years which show a spider’s web where the curve goes up and then it levels off. That shows the actual traffic, but the forecast keeps on going up. If the forecast that was done in 1992 or 1993 had been achieved today, we would have 50% more traffic than we actually have.

There is something wrong with the forecasting. I have said that before. Is it because the department likes building roads? This is not an attack on the present Government because the department has been the same for the past 20 years. I hope that some thought has gone into this. We should look at the road and rail element. I believe that this crossing is necessary but it needs a rail element as well. I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group, but this is a passenger and freight issue. I would like to cover that in a little more detail.

Page 9 of the consultation document states that,

“the provision of rail freight as part of any new Lower Thames crossing would not address the rail freight capacity issues that are forecast for the area”.

That, I think, is open to challenge. In fact, a very large and welcome development called the Thames Gateway is being built just downstream from where these crossings might be, which is forecast at peak to have something like 40 freight trains a day. The London, Tilbury and Southend line and the route across London can actually carry that amount of traffic, because it is a good line.

It is debatable how much of that traffic would want to go south: it would probably want to go north because it is coming in from the deep sea. However, within that complex, a very large logistics centre is being built—and the first bit is already just opened—which will be doing shorter deliveries and may even want to use traffic from the Channel Tunnel. Noble Lords will know that the volume of Channel Tunnel traffic is pretty low at the moment. However, the industry forecasts suggest that, with the present pretty high charges, in 2043—which is hopefully after these links get built, but perhaps we do not know—there will be something like 50 trains a day through the Channel Tunnel, 25 in each direction, compared with about seven today. If somebody achieves a better diversion from road to rail, it would certainly help reduce the number of trucks on the Dartford crossing. If you stand on a bridge at Ashford and count the number of trucks, you will see that 200 trains a day could be filled. The first reason they are not going by rail is largely price, followed by difficulties in France. In a 20-year timescale, however, we can probably think that that could change.

When I worked for Eurotunnel 25 years ago, we forecast that there would be 40 freight trains a day in each direction when the tunnel opened and probably up to 60 today. The forecasts were miles out for whatever reason, but I am just saying that that is the sort of potential. Therefore, I think there is room for rail freight on this link and luckily there are good existing rail lines on either side which could probably take much of that traffic if it wanted to go either to the big logistic centres—I only mentioned one, but there are several others down there on both sides—or further north. There needs to be a strategic view taken, if you have lots of freight trains in the Channel Tunnel wanting to go up to the Midlands, as to which way they should go around London. Do they go south-about through Redhill, or do they go north-about, possibly by crossing here on the LTS and the Gospel Oak-Barking line, or does somebody want to build a new line from somewhere through Hertfordshire and outer Essex, if I can call it that, with a new crossing which could tie up with one of the mayor’s ideas for airports, or whatever? One could go on having conjectures about this for ever. What I am saying is that, if there were a rail link built in to this crossing, it could connect quite easily with existing routes where there is capacity, and it would help a great deal in getting some of the trucks off the road.

I turn to passengers. The same consultation document says:

“Passenger flow volumes on a cross-river rail route east of London are also likely to be limited”.

The North London line services were limited before Transport for London took them over; they are now incredibly successful. London Overground has grown by leaps and bounds, is very popular and has established many new journeys. Rail transport, as noble Lords will know, has increased pretty dramatically in the south-east, as it has in the rest of the country.

It is hard to conclude that passenger flow volumes are likely to be limited: if there is not a service there at the moment, it is very difficult to judge. How many people driving across the Dartford crossing, paying their toll in their car every day, would use a convenient rail service if there was one? It is a very difficult thing to decide and it would probably take five or 10 years after it opened before it was really possible to know what the right figures were and whether everybody got it right. However, most of these links develop into something highly popular. What this link needs is a good road link and a good rail link, hopefully together, and, in places, capacity for expansion. Whether we should be doing that on HS2 we can debate; it is too late now. Capacity for expansion is important, because we tend not to look at the longer and wider potential for this link—I mentioned the airport, but there may be other things in Kent and in Essex. If the economy of the London area is moving east, who knows what it will be in the future for passengers and freight.

I do not have a view on which of the three options should be used, although I have been told by someone who owns quite a big area of land at Swanscombe, where there is potential for a theme park with several thousand jobs, that it would be a pity if the route went straight through the middle of that land. He has a point, if it is a job creation scheme. On the other hand, one has to look at the options and the costs and everything else.

I hope the Government will look again at the potential for rail—not high-speed rail but local and regional services and freight. It would be remiss not to do it, because it is possible that this link may not get built for 10 years—we look back at opinions expressed five years ago, and in 15 years many things can change—so I look forward to hearing the Minister speak about this and am happy to take it further.

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, on having secured this debate. As he says, it is a debate on the anniversary of the existing facility, so we should certainly think afresh.

When he quoted a figure of 50 million, I thought he was going to say every day, but he said every year. Whenever I go across the bridge, it feels more like 10 or 20 times the number he mentioned. It is a point of very real congestion at times. We know the pressure on the M25 and the efforts being made to widen sections of it. There has been significant road widening not far north of the bridge, which has helped, but the bridge and the tunnel are clearly queuing points.

I have the greatest difficulty understanding why we have not moved with some urgency on new toll payment technologies for the crossing—it seems an obvious thing to do. There is something very old-fashioned about cars and trucks slowing to throw coins into meters or show their entitlement to cross. I do not think that implementation of the new system—which after all has been tried and tested on congestion charging in London—represents an enormous technological breakthrough. I wonder that it is not done as soon as possible. I realise the date is not so far away now, but I bemoan the fact that it was not done some time ago, not least because the easiest way to ease things in the short term is to improve the efficiency of the two crossings.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, wants something much more ambitious than that, and I understand that. However, even with the best will in the world—which for me to attribute to the Government would be stretching things—completion of construction is a considerable period away for any such crossing, even if the case is established. The Government’s problem, quite straightforwardly, is that there are more people objecting to each of the three options than are in favour of any one of them. That is a genuine problem. We can see the pressures and the work that would have to be done there.

I hope the Minister, having carried out the consultation, will ensure that people get a clear perspective on the Government’s proposals. They may be more limited than my noble friend Lord Berkeley likes, but I fully support his continuous efforts to get as much freight onto rail as possible, to the advantage of our whole road system, and he is right to make the pitch here. However, that looks some distance away. I think that the degree of usage merits a real investigation. We all know the extent to which road usage for freight relates crucially to convenience, but the M25 is not a normal road. Normal roads have some linear quality to them. The M25 is a great circle, and therefore it is much more difficult to identify the nature of the usage.

I have the colossal misfortune of living some, although not many, miles north of the M1 at the 12 o’clock position and my son lives exactly the same distance south of the M25 at the six o’clock position, so we always have a little debate about which way round it is better to go. Of course, that depends on how much work is being done on road widening on the western stretch, and that is counterbalanced by what we all know will be the likelihood of a very considerable wait at the current Dartford crossing. Therefore, I have direct experience of this, and I know that there is a feeling of great frustration at the present limitations. It looks more than a little archaic when you see the quantity of vehicles at certain times. You can even have the supreme joy of driving at normal speeds going north, whereas when going south there is a jam that lasts for eight to 10 miles while people try to get across. You thank your lucky stars when you are not in that jam, although your lucky stars are unlikely to save you on more than two consecutive journeys before you get caught.

I recognise the difficulties. However, I hope that the pressure that the noble Lord has brought to bear in this debate, together with all the representations about the options, will stir the department into realising its obligation to produce a prompt response to the consultation. I also hope that we will get an assurance this afternoon that the charging system on the existing structures will be implemented as rapidly as possible.

My Lords, I am pleased to address this Question for Short Debate which the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, has secured on the Government’s plans for a new river crossing in the lower Thames area. We have had very thoughtful comments from the three noble Lords who have spoken today, often bringing up issues which have been raised within the consultation. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, was right to say that this is an issue not just of local consequence but with much broader implications.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said that he had seen the bridge built in just four years. Many of us who deal with infrastructure today think longingly of timetables such as that. However, he may be interested to know that the Government are piloting ways in which to accelerate the building of infrastructure. There are four pilots: in Surrey, on the M3 managed motorway between junctions 2 and 4a; in the West Midlands, at M6 junctions 10a to 13, which is also managed motorway; in Derbyshire, at the M1 junctions 28 to 31; and on the A160/A180 Immingham dualling scheme. We will see whether there are some good lessons to learn so that we can start to speed up the delivery of these infrastructure projects, because, as the noble Lord pointed out, that would make sense.

I know that noble Lords are concerned to know the nature and timing of the Government’s plans for a new crossing. I shall try to address that towards the end of my remarks and I hope to provide at least a measure of satisfaction.

Noble Lords will appreciate that there are serious issues at stake in reaching decisions on where to locate a new crossing and whether it should be a bridge or a tunnel. The department is carefully considering the issues reinforced during the consultation and it intends to announce the next steps shortly. I know that that response has been promised by the end of the year, before which I note that there are only three weeks left. I will allow noble Lords to draw conclusions from that statement.

I shall set out the scale of the challenge and what we have done to date. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, reminded us of the history. Fifty years ago, a tunnel was opened between Dartford and Grays. Today, the Dartford-Thurrock crossing comprises two tunnels and one bridge which carry about 140,000 vehicles daily across that part of the River Thames. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, basically said that they carry much more than they were designed to carry. They were designed for 135,000 vehicles, so they are definitely over that, but there is a little comfort in knowing that the current level is not hopelessly over. Of course, we recognise that this is a crucial part of the strategic road network linking London, Kent and Essex, as well as international destinations, with the rest of the UK.

In addition, the existing crossing is located in the area known as the Thames Gateway, which, as the noble Lords, Lord Hanningfield and Lord Berkeley, pointed out, has very ambitious plans for redevelopment and growth, which we obviously want to promote. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, gave us a very personal experience of surviving congestion at the Dartford-Thurrock crossing. I shall think of him and his son trying to decide which of them would be able to get through to the other more easily because the traffic was flowing northbound or southbound but not the other way.

I think a lot of forecasts are as accurate as tosses of the coin. Let us see what we can do about this. Journey time reliability is important, and this is consistently one of the worst performing links in the strategic road network. We think it is going to get better, not worse.

Successive Governments at national and local level have commissioned studies on congestion and possible new river crossings. The most recent report for the department, done in 2009, identified short and medium-term measures to improve traffic flows. It also concluded that a new crossing is needed in the long term and shortlisted potential locations: option A, at the existing Dartford-Thurrock crossing; option B connecting the A2 with the A1089; option C connecting the M2 with the A13 and the M25 between junctions 29 and 30; and a variant of option C connecting the M2 with the A13 and the M25 and additionally widening the A229 between the M2 and the M20. From the start, this coalition Government have been determined to act and promises made as early as the first spending review in 2010 are now being realised.

Next year will see the introduction of free-flow charging. That will please the noble Lord, Lord Davies. I know he has been waiting for that. Motorists will no longer stop at each end of the crossing to put money into a slot machine or hand it to an attendant. Believe it or not, getting this technology right has not been quite as easy as it sounds, and nobody wants to install a technology, have it go wrong and create that kind of inconvenience. Although it was hoped to bring it in late this year, it will now be coming in 2014. I believe October is the target date.

I am grateful to the Minister. I am surprised she said the technology is not working very well because it is working in many other member states. In fact, I met somebody yesterday in Brussels who said that it is not only doing the charging, either fixed-point or road-user charging, but at the same time is checking whether lorries are overloaded, have not paid their licence and other things. The technology is there. It just needs applying to every toll in this country in the same way.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for that. I was on the board of Transport for London when we brought in the congestion charge and I can tell the Committee about the nightmare of trying to make sure that we had effective number plate recognition systems and everything else attendant on it. I suspect every one of your Lordships would rather we delayed a bit and made sure it worked faultlessly—that is probably tempting fate—rather than introduced it and had it not function properly.

I fully accept that and hope the noble Lord will be pleased when he sees the system in operation.

The coalition Government are also committed to reviewing the options for a new crossing. In the 2012 national infrastructure plan, a new crossing for the lower Thames was identified as one of the coalition Government’s top 40 infrastructure projects, which are prioritised as nationally significant and critical for growth, and that continues into the current infrastructure plan.

Noble Lords will understand that we face a unique and important opportunity in choosing how to add capacity to the road network to best serve our national interests. Should we add capacity at the existing crossing linking the M25 between junctions 1a and 30, or should we add capacity further downstream linking other parts of the network? Whichever we choose will have substantial implications, and it is clearly a matter of public interest.

To better understand the relative merits of each option, the department embarked on a technical exercise to review the options. Once that review was completed in spring 2013, the department made the findings publicly available and consulted on the options from May to July this year. Noble Lords will be interested to hear that in addition to online communications, the Minister and officials met interested parties during the consultation in a series of briefings, meetings and public information events. Numerous members of the public took advantage of the opportunities and at the end the department recorded and analysed more than 5,700 responses to the consultation.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies, is right. The consultation has confirmed what many noble Lords may have expected; namely, that opinion is divided. Opinion is divided on both the case for a new crossing and on where to locate a new crossing. Those who responded to the consultation expressed a mixture of support and opposition for each of the options—options A, B, C or C variant. Respondents also made detailed comments highlighting serious issues relating to the economic, environmental and social impacts of each of the options. As I have already emphasised, our decision on where to locate a new crossing is of public interest. I know noble Lords would expect the department to respect due process and give careful consideration to the serious issues raised during the consultation. The Department for Transport intends to make an announcement shortly on next steps and to publish a summary of the consultation response. I have no reason to think that we will not be within our target of doing that by year end.

The question at the heart of today’s debate presumed that the Government would have reached a decision on whether a new crossing should be a bridge or a tunnel. Noble Lords raised issues about levels of tolls, whether tolling is appropriate and forms of financing. While the review which the Department for Transport undertook established the engineering feasibility of bridge and tunnel solutions for each location and considered the means by which it could be funded, it is clear that the detailed work that leads to decisions about technical and financial aspects is much more sensibly progressed when the Government have certainty about their preferred location.

A couple of specific issues were raised, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, that I have not covered. He will know that the department takes the view that a rail crossing would not address the rail-freight capacity issues forecast for the area and that demand for cross-river passenger rail services is likely to be relatively low and so it probably would not offer value for money. However, I am happy to take that issue away and look into it much more thoroughly, as well as looking into the rather strange usage patterns forecast. I will follow up on those issues with the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley.

I think that I addressed most of the direct questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. There is one further issue on traffic forecasting. As he will know, it is based on population and economic growth and motoring costs. Let us follow up on that when we have more time to look at it.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, for securing this debate and the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley and Lord Davies of Oldham, for their contributions. A new lower Thames crossing represents a unique and challenging opportunity. I have referred to the work undertaken to date to consider the options. I have indicated the high level of public interest in the decision on where to locate a new crossing, and I have advised the Committee that the department intends shortly to publish a summary of the consultation response and announce next steps. I trust that noble Lords will maintain their interest as we progress this important infrastructure priority.

Committee adjourned at 5.40 pm.