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Lower Thames Crossing: Development Consent

Volume 837: debated on Monday 29 April 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they expect to meet the statutory timeframe within which a decision on the Lower Thames Crossing Development Consent Order must be made.

My Lords, the statutory deadline for a decision on the lower Thames crossing is 20 June 2024. While the department always attempts to meet its statutory deadlines, I cannot comment further on what is a live planning application.

I thank my noble friend for his reply. He will know that the Dartford Tunnel on the M25 has reached its term design life and is having to be closed for repairs with increasing frequency. In anticipation of serious delays on the M25 or around the motorway network, the lower Thames crossing option was first studied by his department in 2009, with the final route announced in 2017. There have been eight subsequent public consultations with more than 100,000 respondents, with all spending on the project to date costing over £800 million.

The largest bored tunnel in Europe is now ready for commissioning, with contractors poised and with approval from all seven Kent and Essex MPs whose constituencies are affected. Can my noble friend tell the House why there is even a possibility that this project, which is forecast to make a £40 billion contribution to GDP over the next 60 years, could not receive its long-awaited and overdue consent order?

My Lords, this is a large infrastructure project. By its nature, it is very complex and requires years of planning, consultation and analysis before it is ready to move into the delivery phrase. It is important that the Government plan projects properly, are open about the challenges and natural uncertainty of delivering a project of the size and scale of the lower Thames crossing, and learn the lessons of other major projects.

My Lords, does this issue reflect the general incompetence of the Government in dealing with large infrastructure projects, or is it due to the fact that over the last 14 years, skills shortages in the construction industry have been underestimated and not dealt with by the Government?

As I have said, this is a very complex issue. It takes time. It requires years of planning, consultation and analysis: it is as simple as that. Further than that, I cannot comment.

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister ready to concede that progress with this project is of great importance and will at least provide evidence to people in East Anglia that they are part of the levelling-up programme?

I recognise that this is a very important project. It will be of great advantage to many people, both north and south of the Thames.

My Lords, is this not a classic case of how the planning system in Britain is fundamentally broken? It started in 2009 and we do not have a decision by 2024. How can it make sense to have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on a project when the Government have not actually given the final go-ahead?

In the 1930s, when Herbert Morrison faced opposition to the plans for Waterloo Bridge, he described the Conservatives as “Mr Dilly, Mr Dally and Mr Can’t”. Is that not the case with this Government—dilly, dally, can’t?

That is a wonderful history lesson; I am most grateful to the noble Lord. The majority of decisions made by my department and applications for development consent orders have been issued within the three-month statutory deadline that starts from receipt of the recommendation report. That will hopefully be the case with this.

Surely my noble friend recognises that this crossing, which complements the Dartford Crossing, is vital to our exports. After Question Time today, will he find out exactly when that decision will be made and publicise it for the nation’s exporters, if for nobody else?

Several references have been made to the Dartford Crossing. Approach roads from the west and the east are already heavily congested, so traffic would not be able to reach a new crossing provided at Dartford. The approach roads and the M25 are in a heavily built-up area; increasing their capacity would be massively expensive and require the demolition of many houses and other buildings. All options at Dartford require rebuilding junctions and widening the A282 and the M25, which would be very disruptive over a long construction period.

My Lords, has the Minister been over the Dartford Crossing recently? Does he know how difficult and congested it can be? I agree with the comment that it is very damaging to the economy to have a massive collective traffic jam day after day. If the Government fail to make the statutory decision by the due date that the Minister has given, what will happen? Have the Government taken into account the economic damage done by the existing situation at the Dartford Crossing and the benefits that the new Thames crossing will bring?

I know the crossing well and I am very conscious of the issues around it. It is a large infrastructure project, so we must get it right.

My Lords, the simple fact is that this is one of the largest planning applications that has been put before this country; I believe it runs to more than 359,000 pages of requirements. Perhaps my noble friend can reassure us that, following this project, there will be a review of the way in which planning applications are handled. It is very reassuring to hear people from Liberal and Labour Benches say that it should be facilitated much faster. I am not sure whether the local Liberal party has been as supportive of this project as the Liberal Benches in this House seem to be today.

It is a huge project at £800 million, and the current most likely cost of the project is estimated to be £8.3 billion. I will take the noble Lord’s comments regarding planning back to the department.

My Lords, can the Minister comment on the situation with regard to the Hammersmith Bridge, which is a much smaller project but is creating great difficulties for emergency vehicles in reaching hospitals and for police in reaching people living in certain parts of south-west London?

I am very conscious of the issue around the Hammersmith Bridge, but it is of course an issue that concerns the local authorities; it is a matter for them to resolve.

My Lords, will the Minister reflect on a more recent history lesson relating to the present Question—the experience of HS2? The planning application was delivered, the parliamentary procedures were concluded and considerable—if not vast—expenditure was made on the purchase of properties and costs involved in the route. Yet this Government—at a minute to midnight of the project’s completion—pulled the plug, on a Prime Minister’s whim. What hope is there for any other major infrastructure policy being completed under this Government when that lesson has not been learned?

I have a question about the Hammersmith Bridge. The Minister quite rightly referred to Hammersmith and Fulham’s responsibility, but the Government also have a major responsibility and they set up a task force. Can the Minister say when that task force last met?

I recall answering this question from the noble and right reverend Lord some time ago. I cannot remember the date, but I will certainly look it up and write to him.

My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt, I am not currently answering Questions from the Front Bench, although I hope that it is simply a matter of time.

Can the Minister tell the House how many people in his department are currently working on this important project and how many of them he fears might lose their jobs to pay for the increased defence spending?

My Lords, does the Minister remember that, when the Conservative Government took power, they ended the concept of a national policy group that would look at major infrastructure schemes and make sure that Britain was able to deliver those schemes in a quick and meaningful way? Does he agree with me that that was a massive mistake and that they should look at this issue again?