A226 Galley Hill Road — [David Mundell in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 5:49 pm on 7 May 2024.

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[David Mundell in the Chair]

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale 6:01, 7 May 2024

I will call Gareth Johnson to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Government support for repairs to the A226 Galley Hill Road.

This debate relates to the road named Galley Hill in my constituency of Dartford. It is part of the A226 route, often referred to as London Road, which runs from Dartford, through Gravesend—represented by my hon. Friend Adam Holloway, who would also like to contribute to the debate—to the A2 in Rochester. It is a vital thoroughfare that is relied on by local residents, businesses and haulage serving the local community and beyond. On 10 April last year, a stretch of the road that sits on a chalk spine collapsed, taking the road, footpath and utilities down on to business premises, and rendering the road completely impassable. To understand what may have caused the collapse, it is necessary to look at the road’s recent history.

In the September prior to the collapse, I met Kent County Council and Thames Water to discuss the road. A significant number of water leaks were taking place in London Road at the time, which was causing mayhem for people living in the area. At that meeting, I discovered that there had been no fewer than 47 serious water leaks in the previous four years, which is possibly the highest number of leaks on any stretch of road in the whole county of Kent. I do not know for certain whether the leaks caused the collapse of the road or whether the road itself was responsible for damaging the water pipes; that is an area of contention between Thames Water and KCC, and an issue that must be resolved to establish liability. I had hoped that they would resolve the issue of liability quickly; alas, they have not.

What we do know is that the road being closed for over a year has caused misery for people just trying to go about their daily business. Heavy goods vehicles have been using the narrow Swanscombe High Street; KCC has put in a temporary traffic order to stop them doing so, but that has not entirely solved the problems. A significant number of businesses in the area, on either side of Galley Hill, have seen their takings reduced because of the lengthy diversion to circumvent the collapsed road.

I met the previous Roads Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Holden, to ask for his assistance and show him the road. He agreed, and came down to Galley Hill to have a look at the road and see the problem for himself. At that stage, it was hoped that liability could be established and that a contractor could get on with repairing or replacing the road. The current Minister, who is in his place, has met with me numerous times and with Kent County Council. I pay tribute to him for the keen interest he has shown in this issue and for trying to find a solution, which is typical of his attitude to such issues, and I am grateful to him for that. What we cannot have is for nothing to happen while Kent County Council and Thames Water resolve their dispute. It is highly likely that one of them will have to pick up the bill, but the residents of Swanscombe, Greenhithe and Northfleet should not be held to ransom while that is decided.

Adding to the complication is the fact that, in order to survey the road to establish the cause of the collapse, Kent County Council has to enter private land. The road is adjacent to three separate plots of land, each with its own owner. Two of the owners have agreed to allow Kent County Council access, but one is refusing, making surveys almost impossible to carry out. I am pleased that Kent County Council has now agreed to take legal action to gain access, but I plead with it to hasten its approach to this issue. In short, Kent County Council needs to find out as quickly as possible what caused the collapse. Local Kent County councillor Peter Harman, from a residents’ group, has been trying extremely hard to persuade the landowner to allow access but so far, unfortunately, to no avail.

I have secured this debate to formally ask the Government to step in to pay for the repair or replacement of the road while Kent County Council and Thames Water are arguing about liability. Whichever of them is liable can compensate the Government at a later date but, crucially, local residents would be able to see the prospect of an end to the misery they are suffering. I accept that the Government need to know what that liability is, so those surveys need to be carried out as soon as possible. The Government also need Kent County Council and Thames Water to agree to this course of action. My understanding—I will be corrected by the Minister during his speech if I have got this wrong—is that only Kent County Council has given its consent and that Thames Water has not responded to the Government. Just last week, I asked Thames Water for a meeting prior to this debate so that we could discuss the issues around liability and the way forward. I have had no response either from Thames Water, which is just not fair on local people, who are—we should not forget—its customers.

This is a very frustrating situation, and it has gone on for far too long. Kent County Council needs to carry out these surveys by legal action or otherwise. Thames Water needs to actually engage with people, and it cannot be surprised when people point the finger at it, given the history of leaks in the local area. I ask the Minister to do what he can to find a solution, and most importantly, for this road to be repaired or replaced so that local people can at last get their lives back.

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham 6:08, 7 May 2024

I thank my hon. Friend Gareth Johnson for getting this debate. This thing has been something of a nightmare for quite a few of my constituents, and it is ongoing as we have heard. I really apologise for my voice, and I will cut my speech slightly shorter.

I have received multiple complaints about the situation. This road is a very important part of our road network, and its closure puts a massive strain on the A2. Whenever there is a problem on the A2 or at the Dartford crossing, the absence of Galley Hill makes it impossible for local people to travel easily to and from Dartford. Bus users are particularly affected, and people travelling by bus from my constituency to the local acute hospital now have their bus route split into two separate routes to cope with the congestion. Sometimes it also takes constituents up to half an hour to get out of Ebbsfleet International railway station car park, which more than doubles their journey time to London. The diversion for pedestrians and cyclists is also huge.

Getting the road open again is an absolute priority, and I am really grateful to the Minister and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend Mr Holden, for being so proactive on that. I know that his Department devolves transport matters to the local authorities, but it is vital that the Government step in when a local authority cannot reopen a road in a reasonable timeframe, as is the case here.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford suggested, the Government can and should act to get the road open again in a situation such as this, where there is a lack of clarity about liability and an impasse is created. The Government underwriting the works without waiting for legal disputes to be resolved would make a huge difference to businesses and residents in Dartford and Gravesham who rely on the road. It would be an excellent use of taxpayers’ money, and the taxpayer would of course eventually get the money back through the water company or Kent County Council. I was going to speak about leaks, but to save hon. Members from having to listen to my awful voice, and because my hon. Friend has already mentioned them, I shall not.

I conclude by adding one more frustrating thing. Some of the problems that we have identified with traffic will remain even when Galley Hill Road reopens. That is because the Minister and his predecessors ignored my solution for the Dartford crossing, which was to have a long tunnel at Dartford for M25 long-term traffic and to use the infrastructure, bridge and tunnels that are already there for local traffic. The proposal from the Minister’s Department for the lower Thames crossing will not solve the problem of the traffic in Dartford. My constituents and, more so, those living in Dartford will continue to be plagued by traffic problems because of that mistake.

Finally, I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford to pass on my thanks and my constituents’ thanks to Councillor Harman for his efforts. I also thank the Minister, who has taken so seriously what is a relatively small thing in the scheme of things, given his huge portfolio, for so kindly engaging with us.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 6:12, 7 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) on securing the debate and speaking, notwithstanding what is clearly a pretty bad sore throat.

Let me start with one key point. At the end of his speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham said that this is a small matter inside the vast portfolio of the Department for Transport. It is not a small matter to the people of Swanscombe and the surrounding area; it is a massive issue. I accept that, I acknowledge it, and I appreciate it. All of us comprehend the scale of the problem. It is a bad day when Government in all their glory—or not glory—start thinking, “Oh, this is too small for us to get involved.” I promise my hon. Friend, all colleagues and anybody who is watching or reading this debate that we take this seriously. We are here to help, and we believe that there are things we can do to facilitate a resolution. The Government’s acceptance of this issue as significant—I put that on the record—is utterly vital. I give credit to both of my colleagues today and to Councillor Harman, who embodies the rich tradition of councillors who really get involved and go above and beyond to try to resolve local issues. Full credit to him.

I accept and acknowledge that Kent County Council has a difficult job. In the time that I have, I will try to both assess and analyse the extent of the difficulty and explain some of the causation of the ongoing problems and show some sort of light at the end of the tunnel we all face. In the first instance, what can the Department for Transport do? The first key point that must be accepted is that this is a significant road failure, which is not a standard thing that local authorities deal with. That is evidenced, bluntly, by the degree and number of surveys that are required to be completed before, first and foremost, the cause of the problem can be identified. Then, sadly, there will have to be an attribution of blame.

So how is the problem to be fixed? While it is the desire of everyone in this room or watching or reading the debate to fix the problem, solidifying a road on the base we are dealing with is clearly very technical and difficult, and there is no simple solution. To pretend otherwise is naive. However, I am very keen to ensure—it is already happening—that the technical experts at the Department for Transport, who build major roads and highways, are available to Kent County Council to work hand in hand with it.

Without getting too much into the nuts and bolts, the core funding for Kent has gone up considerably. It has received £181 million in funding for highway maintenance since 2019. It has also been a beneficiary of the Network North funding, following the Prime Minister’s decision in October last year on the second leg of HS2. Kent will receive £135 million in total between 2023 and 2034, and that funding comes in addition to local transport funding from the last funding review.

I acknowledge and accept that this will be a very expensive process. The tricky part is that until we identify the cause, which requires the surveys that Kent is trying to do, we will struggle. I echo and endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford: it is vital that Kent progresses this matter. If it is required to take legal action, then so be it—legal action should be taken and it should be expedited. I will also put in a plea to the owner of the third property to consider the situation. While two of the properties have given their consent, the third property has not. This can be challenged and overcome through a legal process, but it will cost the taxpayer money and it will take time. I urge the third owner to reconsider and to be aware of the responsibilities we all need to discharge. I ask them to avoid the legal process that sadly will be necessary, but in which unquestionably—I cannot commit courts to this in the future, but I am confident, having been a lawyer for 20 years—Kent will be successful, although it will take time.

Once one has identified the cause of the problem—as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford set out, there are huge amounts of leaks and water egress relating to the demise of the road—the question thereafter remains: was that caused by the collapse of the road or did it cause that collapse? None of us are structural engineers or water engineers who can assess that, so I am more interested in the long-term solution: how does one reconstruct a road on such friable land? That is not simple, but DFT is on hand to assist in whatever way it can.

The basic principle, which we cannot get around, is that under section 41 of the Highways Act 1980, which was passed by this House, all local authorities are liable for the maintenance and repair of their local roads. That obligation continues to this day, and it is in no way the norm for the Department for Transport to step in and say, “Do not worry about the statutory obligations that are set out under the Highways Act and have been acknowledged under repeated Governments; we will step in and fix this particular problem.” So that is not, with respect, what I would propose. Kent Council is unquestionably the organisation on the ground best able to ascertain the problem and find a solution to it.

However, it is unacceptable that not all the parties in the room are talking on an ongoing basis. I do not want to get into a “he said, she said” situation with Thames Water or its respective legal teams or the lawyers who represent everybody. What I want to do is to talk about the art of the possible and the art of the possible, surely, is this. I, as a Minister, can declare at the Dispatch Box that my door is open to convene a meeting with Thames Water and with Kent County Council. To follow up, I will write a letter tomorrow to the Thames Water chief executive, inviting him in the next few weeks to come in, if necessary with legal teams, to discuss the way ahead.

It is complicated, because self-evidently everybody would like the road to be fixed just like that. However, it is impossible to do anything until we can identify causation and what a structural engineer says good repair looks like. However, there is a clear middle ground, whereby if, and this is an “if”, one can enter a legal agreement with the respective parties, Kent County Council and Thames Water, such that all parties put aside any issue of blame for the present and allow any mediation to go ahead on a blame basis, in either a court of law or a standard tribunal, which is regularly done with these sorts of things, as there is a standard tribunal that can be entered into for the collapse of roads, either in a court or in mediation—if that process is allowed to go ahead, the Government will step in and assist in whatever way they can to try and resolve the issue as fast as possible. That, it seems to me, is the best way ahead.

It is not the case that Government can fund this unilaterally. There is no specific pot that exists that the Department for Transport can dip into to bail out individual local authorities in these circumstances. However, I can definitely see the potential, whereby, provided we have a legal agreement that party A or party B will meet the end costs at the end of the day, so that the taxpayer is not out of pocket, particularly—this is the key point—if Thames Water is liable for this, we would then be in a position where the Government can step in and assist.

Clearly, there are a lot of ifs and buts in all that, but I want to assure my hon. Friends for Dartford and for Gravesham that we will try our hardest to resolve this issue in that way. That would be going above and beyond anything that has ever been done before, frankly, and I think there is nothing more that one could do, over and above that.

I must also be very conscious, first, that I have the funds within my portfolio at the Department for Transport to pay for what could be a very significant project, because any project that the Department proceeds with is taking up the project money of something else that is not proceeded with. Secondly, because I am liable for taxpayers’ money, clearly I must ensure that that money is spent in an appropriate way, when the normal course of events is that a local authority and a transgressor—whether a water company or any other landlord, or whatever—have to thrash things out between the two of them.

That is what I propose to try and do. It is unquestionably the case that the local authority will assist on an ongoing basis. I will certainly write to Thames Water to back up the email that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has sent, and will make sure, as I have publicly stated, that our door is open to try and resolve this situation. Clearly, Thames Water has its own issues, which we are all acutely aware of. However, at the same time it is a water company serving all our constituents and it has obligations, just as much as anybody else; and, if it is a matter of law, then the law can be paused whilst we resolve this between ourselves. That is what I propose; that is what I hope we will be able to do.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has set out, my predecessor—the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend Mr Holden—visited the site. My hon. Friend knows that he was in his constituency today, although I did not go to Galley Hill, to be fair. I am acutely aware of the wider impact, not only on his local businesses but on the daily lives of his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham. We will do what we can, going forward. That is my solemn pledge to this House. I genuinely hope—

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

The Minister is, of course, responsible for National Highways. If the A226 was any bigger, it would come under the responsibility of National Highways. Does he therefore have any objections, when we come to construction or rebuilding, to Kent County Council’s highways department contacting National Highways in order to seek some of its expertise?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

No. In fact, I would go further than that and say that that is what I would expect to happen on an ongoing basis. It is in the interests of National Highways that one of the key roads leading into the Dartford Crossing and the A2 is functioning properly. There is no doubt whatsoever that the breakdown of this particular road and the consequences of that impact upon lots of other things in the surrounding area. I want to make clear—if I have not done so, I will try again—that when I say DFT officials will give full co-operation, as far as I am concerned, that includes National Highways. It is in the interests of National Highways that this road is up and running as soon as possible, which is in the wider national interest, not just the interest of the good people of Swanscombe and the surrounding areas. We are very keen for this to happen, because there are clearly consequences if the matter is not resolved.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.