Thank you, Mr Speaker, for selecting this matter for debate. I am very sorry that the Chamber has just cleared, because if Members had stayed, they would have heard how a historic opportunity to fix the M25 at Dartford—as we know, it is broken there—has been missed, therefore condemning our constituents to another two or three decades of gridlock at Dartford.
I guess that the Minister knows my views on this subject, so I will try to keep this short and sweet. Later, I will discuss our concerns about the new crossing, but before that, I think that I need again to go through the uncomfortable truths about what is behind this.
It is a fact that any crossing to the east of the existing crossing will do nothing to ease the long-standing congestion and pollution at Dartford. For many years, all of us have spent hours sitting in traffic there. The people of Dartford have experienced years of gridlock, pollution, lung disease and everything else. The crossing has been stretched beyond capacity for years, leading to an absolute nightmare for the people of Dartford. In my view, they have been let down by their elected representatives, who should have been begging for the crossing to be fixed.
What is the cause of the situation at Dartford? All of us have been on this road, most of us sat in traffic. Only at Dartford do a little local road, regional roads and the busiest motorway in Europe—the M25, which goes around London—collide. We have three types of traffic—local, regional and long-range national—and the gridlock is caused not by the crossing itself, but by the fact that one of the tunnels is unsuitable for vehicles such as fuel tankers. If a fuel tanker tries to go into the tunnel without an escort, all the traffic has to be stopped, so it builds up. Going from north to south, the M25 is just as good or bad as the rest of it, but that is the cause.
For the last 12 years or so, I have thought that because the M25 will always run through Dartford, the only answer to fixing the broken traffic at Dartford is to fix the M25 at Dartford, not seven miles down the road. I thought that the only solution would be a new bridge or, better, a very long seven-mile tunnel from north of the A13 to south of the A2. The fact that that is not going to happen is inexplicable, and all the more so because Highways England estimates that the new crossing will remove only 14% of the traffic from Dartford.
What needs to happen now? The new crossing to the east of Gravesend is being built but, as I am sure my hon. Friend Gareth Johnson will agree, mitigation is urgently needed around the tunnel approaches. About 50 million journeys are made through the tunnel annually, and it is closed briefly more than 300 times a year. When that happens, it results in the gridlock that we have all experienced.
This decision has condemned millions to spending decades more in traffic jams. A project that was initially designed to fix the problem at Dartford has bizarrely morphed into an economic development project that will undoubtedly benefit the people of Kent and Essex, but will condemn the people of Dartford to decades of further ill health, pollution and gridlock. The constituents of everyone in this House, including hon. Members from north of the border, will, from time to time, spend huge amounts of time in that traffic. I once spent an hour and a half in it, but I have been visited by people who have been in it for two hours. A couple of years ago, there was a complete blockage and people waited there for 12 hours. Closer to home, thousands of my constituents’ homes will effectively be blighted over the years that it takes to build the crossing.
The decision comes at a time when we are thinking about the future. Autonomous vehicles are no longer the realm of science fiction, and some car manufacturers say that they will have autonomous cars on the road within the next decade. There will be an awful lot of growth in the movement of goods by autonomous vehicles. What does that mean? The big thing about autonomous vehicles is that they can travel much closer together and optimise the road system. If there is gridlock, all the other cars can be switched off and a road train can clear a whole area of traffic very quickly before another road train is released across it. That technology will, if anything, make our roads considerably easier to use.
It is possible to argue the other way. Autonomous vehicles will allow us to get in our car and trundle up to Scotland or travel to work without the stress of driving, allowing us to go to sleep, read a book or whatever. I accept that there is an argument that such vehicles may make more journeys likely, but I do not think that that is the case, given the internet and moves towards home working. I believe that autonomous vehicles will greatly optimise our existing road infrastructure.
If we look at the skyline of Dartford from the traffic jam, we see houses that have chimneys and plenty that do not. The reason why those houses do not have chimneys is that we no longer all heat our homes by burning coal or wood. As with many other areas of public spending, we must therefore look at the effects that a new disruptive technology will have on massive infrastructure projects such as this one, which will cost at least £6 billion. In mitigation of the terrible traffic, it really would not be rocket science to look at channel tunnel freight trains. Why do all the trucks have to unload at Folkestone? If they went on up north, it would make the south of England a rather better place to be.
Even if we accept that Highways England will ignore the irrational aspects of building a crossing east of Gravesend, which will not help Dartford, there are many problems with its latest plans for the lower Thames crossing that I and my constituents want addressed. The main purpose of this debate—I will end quite soon—is to outline my concerns and those of the Lower Thames Crossing Association. I and Mr Bob Lane from the association had an excellent meeting today with Tim Jones, the project director from Highways England, and we are very grateful to him for the intelligent and constructive way in which he is approaching this project. I hope that the Minister has a map of the crossing in front of him, but if not, I can provide one—[Interruption.] He does; excellent.
I will return to the crossing, but before I do so, let me quickly outline the concerns of my hon. Friend Stephen Metcalfe. He apologises for not being in the Chamber—it is my fault, because I did not inform him about this debate until yesterday—but he has four points, which I will read verbatim for the benefit of the Minister. The first is:
“Will not fix problem at existing crossing. Remain convinced that the current plans will do little or nothing to alleviate actual problem at existing crossing.”
Secondly, he wants more “Cut and cover” and says that
“wherever possible the route should be ‘cut in’ and below existing road, not above ground on stilts.”
Thirdly, he wants:
“Minimize footprint of”— ugly—
“junctions wherever possible and put in place full mitigation.”
Finally, on “Air Quality”, he says:
I have three main requests. First, I want Highways England to remove the proposed junction on to the A226. On a positive note, I see that it has now removed that junction, which is extremely important for us if we are to avoid people using the rat runs through Gravesend and local villages when the Dartford crossing is gridlocked, as it will continue to be because building this crossing will not solve the problem at Dartford.
Secondly, given that there will not now be an exit at the A226—I apologise to people who do not have a map—I want Highways England to move the southern portal to the south of the A226. This would make a great difference to people living in the village of Chalk. It would also get my friend the rector of Chalk, Rev. Nigel Bourne, off my back, as the current proposals separates the village from his beautiful medieval church, so doing this would be a personal help to me.
Thirdly, I want to maximise the use of what Highways England calls green corridors. As much as possible should be done to reduce noise, pollution and environmental impact where the road will cross Thong Lane for the community at Thong and the community up at Riverview Park. This development will be 100 metres from those residents, and doing that, which we should consider in relation to the massive overall cost of the scheme, would generate enormous good will which, frankly, is in short supply. I also hope that as much as possible of the spoil from the great big boring machine can be dumped so that people do not have to look at this eyesore.
What started as a roads project has, in my view, bizarrely morphed into an economic one. Of course it will bring wider economic benefits to Kent and Essex, but we are again at risk of having another big disconnect between the people who make decisions and those who suffer from them. I am not just concerned about several thousands of my local residents who will be very badly affected over the next 10 years or so while the crossing is being built, and some of them once it has been built, although they are obviously my main concern. This is a disaster for the people of Dartford, for every one of us in this Chamber and for every one of our constituents, because the traffic jams will go on and on, and we will be paying over £6 billion for that.
Even staff at Highways England admits that however many new crossings are put to the east of the existing crossing, at some stage they will have to come back to Dartford to fix the problem there. There is no getting away from the simple fact that the M25 runs through Dartford. We will fix the problem at Dartford only by separating the long-range national traffic from the local and regional traffic. To be frank, I fear that in 20 years’ time, when people wake up to this missed historic opportunity to fix Dartford, some of us will be seen as the guilty men and women.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on the lower Thames crossing. He raised his constituents’ concerns diligently, and I would expect no less from such an assiduous constituency MP. Before I respond to the detailed points he raised, I reassure all those who are impacted by congestion at Dartford that tackling congestion on the strategic road network has to be a priority for the Government and Highways England.
I beg my hon. Friend’s forgiveness for reflecting briefly on how we got to where we are. The idea of a tunnel crossing at Dartford was first proposed in the 1920s. Initially, a crossing between Tilbury and Gravesend was suggested to replace the ferry service, but that was rejected in favour of a route further upstream, nearer Dartford. Of course, the Tilbury to Gravesend ferry is still in operation today, providing a half-hourly service.
Meanwhile, the Dartford crossing has provided the only road crossing of the Thames east of London for over 50 years. It is now one of the busiest roads in the country, used 50 million times a year by commuters, business travellers, haulage companies, emergency services and holidaymakers alike, connecting communities and businesses; providing a vital link between the channel ports, London and the rest of the UK; enabling local businesses to operate effectively; and providing access for local residents to housing, jobs, leisure and retail facilities on both sides of the river. In summary, it is a critical part of our strategic road network.
The crossing opened in stages as traffic demand grew. The west tunnel opened in 1963, the east tunnel in 1980 and the bridge in 1991. The existing crossing, as my hon. Friend pointed out, is at capacity for much of the time and is one of the least reliable sections of our strategic road network of motorways and major trunk roads. As he well knows, congestion on and the closure of the existing crossing occur frequently. That creates significant disruption and pollution, which impacts on communities and visitors locally, regionally and, indeed, up and down the UK.
The Government recognise that a lower Thames crossing is needed to reduce congestion at the existing Dartford crossing and to support economic growth across the region. The objectives of the scheme include affordability for both the Government and users, value for money, improved resilience of the Thames crossings and the major road network, and minimising adverse impacts on health and the environment by improving safety.
In 2009, the Department examined five locations where an additional crossing could be built. The most easterly of those were found to be too far from the existing crossing to ease the problems at Dartford and were eliminated from further consideration. In 2012, the Department began to appraise the remaining three locations, leading to a public consultation the following year. Location A was at the existing crossing, location B would have connected the A2 and the Swanscombe peninsula with the A1089, and location C was to the east of Gravesend. Later that year, the Government announced a decision not to proceed with location B because of the impact on local development plans and the limited transport benefits.
The Government published their response to the consultation in July 2014, confirming the need for an additional crossing between Essex and Kent. It commissioned Highways England to carry out a more detailed assessment of the remaining two locations, A and C.
More than 47,000 people took part in the consultation, making it the largest-ever public consultation for a UK road project. Highways England analysed the consultation findings and reported back to the Department for Transport, and in April 2017 we announced that our preferred route for the crossing was at location C. The route comprises a bored tunnel under the Thames, a new road north of the river, joining the M25 between junctions 29 and 30, and a new road south of the river, joining the A2 east of Gravesend. The preferred route announcement allows for detailed design and assessment to be carried out on the route. Highways England has written to everyone within the development boundary and has contacted the 22,000 people who have registered for updates.
Having responded to the feedback received during the preferred route consultation, Highways England is now undertaking further work to understand the extent to which it might be appropriate to increase the tunnelled section of the route to reduce noise and other environmental impacts. Furthermore, in relation to some of the concerns my hon. Friend has just raised, Highways England is now putting forward some important changes to the project design in response to the feedback it received in the consultation.
The changes include: a new design for the junction with the M25 to help it blend better with the local landscape; a new junction and link road at Tilbury to reduce the impact of HGVs on local roads; the removal of the proposed A226 junction at Gravesend Road to reduce the impact on local villages, as my hon. Friend mentioned; a new design for the junction with the A2 and a widening of the A2 through to junction 1 of the M2 to help improve traffic flow; and a proposal for three lanes in each direction between the A2 and A13, rather than just two, as this could provide greater benefits. In addition, Highways England will be assessing carefully the air quality and other environmental impacts of three lanes as it continues its design work. All the updates to the route design will be consulted on in 2018. This will allow all interested parties, including my hon. Friend, a further opportunity to give feedback on the latest version of the route.
An option to create a new crossing at Dartford was thoroughly assessed but rejected as it would not provide sufficient additional free-flowing capacity to the network. A new route at the existing crossing would not improve traffic resilience and would still cause severe congestion. The route would take at least six years to build and cause severe disruption affecting hundreds of millions of journeys while under construction. It would also worsen air quality and noise pollution in the immediate Dartford area.
The lower Thames crossing should not be seen as an isolated proposal. We have listened to concerns about the existing Dartford crossing.
I appreciate the constructive way in which my hon. Friend and the other Ministers have approached this since the decision was made, and, as I said, Highways England is being very decent, but I must return to my earlier point. How is a road that will reduce congestion at Dartford by only 14% still about traffic mitigation? It is not about sorting out Dartford; it has morphed into an issue of economic development, and we are kidding the public if we suggest otherwise.
I recognise the point my hon. Friend is trying to make. I have tried to make it clear that I am focusing on the traffic management aspects of the project, rather than the issue of wider economic benefits to which he refers.
I want to explain some of what we are seeking to do to improve matters at the Dartford crossing. Like many people, I recognise the concerns about the crossing. Anyone who has to drive through it will always bear in mind the possibility of severe delays. Highways England keeps the safety and performance of the crossing constantly under review to identify areas that can improve the crossing for all road users. The traffic safety system, introduced as part of the Dart charge, continues to be improved, together with the management of dangerous goods and abnormal loads.
Actions are being taken to improve the management of traffic during incidents and ensure the reopening of lanes as soon as possible afterwards. The road signing on the northbound Dartford crossing approaches is being reviewed, as is the movement of different types of vehicle as they approach the crossing, to see what improvements can be made.
Work continues with local authorities on both sides of the crossing to improve traffic flows between the local and strategic road networks, and I know that my hon. Friend Gareth Johnson is closely involved in those very discussions. That includes joint working by Highways England and Kent County Council on a number of improvement measures for the junctions used by traffic approaching the crossing directly from Dartford. Highways England will continue to monitor the conditions at the crossing to understand how various factors are contributing to its underlying performance. It will also evaluate the impact of the measures implemented, and the public will be kept informed of the findings.
Last but not least, as was announced alongside the preferred route for the lower Thames crossing, we are committed to delivering a £10 million package of measures over the next four years to improve traffic flow at and around the existing Dartford crossing. The roads Minister, my hon. Friend Jesse Norman, meets the chief executive of Highways England monthly, and I can assure my hon. Friend that the performance of the existing crossing is kept under regular review.
I heard very clearly my hon. Friend’s suggestions about connected and autonomous vehicles, and I assure him that they are a frequent topic of debate in the Department. We want to ensure that all road projects take account of the future use of technology, and of how that might change road use in particular.
We recognise that there is more to be done at the existing Dartford crossing, and I am sure that Highways England will keep my hon. Friend and neighbouring Members updated on its plans and future actions. I was pleased to hear that representatives of Highways England were able to meet my hon. Friend today so that they could go through the plans in more detail, and I hope that that engagement will continue and deepen.
I trust that I have reassured my hon. Friend about some key facts. The Government understand the critical role played by the Dartford crossing and the M25 in our strategic road network, but we also understand its local significance for residents on both sides of the estuary, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We take congestion at the Dartford crossing, and in the wider Dartford area, very seriously, which is why we are taking action to improve matters in both the wider strategy network and the Dartford area.
I greatly appreciate it.
Honestly, I love my constituents, but if I thought it was right to put the crossing there, I would man up, look them in the eye and say, “I am really sorry, but this is the correct decision.” Under any Government, including a Labour Government, I would say, “This is the right thing to do.” However, it is not about that. It is blindingly obvious to anyone that if we do not fix the M25 at Dartford, we will not fix the problem. What is the Department’s response to the fact that its own figures say that this new crossing will reduce congestion by only 14% at today’s rates, let alone by the time the thing is built? There is a desperate need for a new crossing at Dartford, and the Government will have to come back to it at some point.
I recognise the principal point that my hon. Friend is trying to make. The message that I am trying to communicate in return is that there are more ways than one of tackling the problem. I believe that substantial improvements can be made at the Dartford crossing in terms of ensuring its reliability and its stability, to ensure that when incidents do occur the road can be cleared as quickly as possible. I also think, however, that there is a wider strategic justification for the lower Thames crossing, which is why the Government made their announcement back in April.
We have to plan not just for the short term, but for the medium and the long term as well. We must develop the proposals for the lower Thames crossing as part of one of the biggest programmes of investment in the strategic road network in a generation. It supports motorists by investing in our motorways and our major A roads, which will boost economic growth, locally, regionally and nationally. That is why I think that we have made the right decision for the people of Kent, and for the people of Britain as a whole.
Question put and agreed to.