MP Metcalfe takes centre stage on Dartford Crossing debate

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A MAJOR debate into the state of the Dartford Crossing has taken place in the House of Commons.

The full transcript is below.

Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

That this House has considered congestion at the Dartford crossing.

I am pleased to have secured this debate. I appreciate that the arguments have been made in the House on a number of occasions in the past couple of years, but until Dartford is relieved of the threat of another crossing, I will continue to lobby the Government to locate the new lower Thames crossing away from Dartford to the east of Gravesend, which is option C.

The Minister is aware that the decision is keenly awaited. We all want it to be made swiftly, primarily so we can get on with building the crossing and have some alleviation of the congestion that Dartford suffers daily. Until the decision is made, I and others will continue to harass the Secretary of State for Transport and the Roads Minister.

Stephen Metcalfe Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons)

I hope to make a contribution later, but first I want to say that I hear what my hon. Friend is saying loud and clear about a decision being made. However, surely he agrees that whatever the decision is, the Government must demonstrate that it will solve the original problem: congestion in Dartford and at the Dartford crossing.

Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Option C, which Highways England prefers, would do exactly what he says. A significant proportion of the congestion—more than the 14% that is often quoted—would be moved from Dartford and, more importantly, a choice would be provided for motorists. At the moment, drivers, particularly of freight vehicles, have no choice and must use the Dartford crossing. Freight vehicles often cannot fit through the Blackwall tunnel, so must go to Dartford. If there is a problem on the approach to the Dartford crossing in Kent or Essex, freight and other vehicles cannot use the crossing, so there must be a choice and some resilience in the system, which is not there at the moment. It is clear that option C should be built, because of the choice it would give to motorists and the resilience it would provide that is currently not there.

It is in the interests not only of Dartford but of the whole country that we tackle this significant congestion problem. I submit that the approach to the Dartford crossing is the worst stretch of road in the whole United Kingdom. Not only does it have some of the worst congestion in the country, but to add insult to injury, drivers must pay to use it. They often pay to sit in traffic, which is why it is the worst stretch of road in the UK. The Department for Transport should deal with it as a priority.

No other stretch of road impacts so much on so many people. No other road has had a song released about it. You would rule me out of order, Mr Owen, if I quoted the lyrics of that song, but I am pleased to say that a cleaner version is now available on the internet should anyone want to download it. I think you get the gist of what the lyrics are likely to be. They illustrate clearly the frustration that many people experience when using the Dartford crossing.

No stretch of road in the country has such an impact on the local population as the approach to the Dartford crossing. When the M25 in my constituency is congested because of traffic on the A282 approach to the crossing, it paralyses the local town. It prevents children being picked up from school and people from getting to work and carrying out their business, and creates horrific pollution levels. It is killing people in the Dartford area.

It is worth looking at the accident figures for the A282 approach to the crossing. It is not just pollution that is having a detrimental impact on people’s health in Dartford; it is the accidents. During 2011-12, there were 79 accidents on the approach road. The following year, when the work started on the free-flow system, that number had increased to 143. In 2013-14, there were 318 accidents, double the previous number, and if that was not sufficient, from September 2014 to August 2015, it doubled again to 675. Last year, the combined figure for injury and non-injury accidents showed a reduction, which was pleasing, but still as high as 487. That is an horrific number of accidents in the area.

Stephen Metcalfe Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons)

I completely agree that the number of accidents my hon. Friend is describing is horrendous. What I cannot get my head around is how moving 14% of traffic—the figure may be disputed—away from the existing crossing will significantly reduce the number of accidents at that spot.

Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

It has been shown that capacity will increase by some 70% under option C. Highways England provided that figure, which illustrates clearly that option C would improve traffic and the problem of accidents at the approach. It is not just the volume of traffic that causes accidents; the poor road layout and the poor signage compounds the problem. We have seen a ninefold increase in the number of road accidents per year between 2012 and 2015, so better road signage and a better road layout are desperately needed to reduce the number of accidents at that location.

It is fair to say that we must plan ahead for the increase in traffic flow at the Dartford crossing. The tunnels were designed for 140,000 vehicles a day, but anything up to 170,000 use them daily and the laws of physics say there must be traffic issues. Traffic management must be looked at seriously, not just at the new lower Thames crossing and not just while it is being built. We must have better management of traffic flow and mitigate the problems affecting Dartford.

We should have been discussing this some 15 years ago. Road planning means planning ahead for problems that will exist in future. It is a brutal fact that nothing was done for so many years that, to all intents and purposes, we are playing catch-up and trying to deal with a problem in 10 years’ time when it is here today. We should be debating the opening of the new lower Thames crossing, but instead we are debating where it should be.

I return to a point I made to my hon. Friend Stephen Metcalfe. There are two options on the table: option A and option C. Option C is preferred, not just by Highways England but others, because it would provide an alternative for motorists and some resilience in the network. The idea that we should just build more and more crossings at Dartford is pure madness. It flies in the face of common sense to suggest that more and more crossings in the same location, relying on the same local roads funnelling through the pinch point that Dartford has become, is a solution to the problem.

When we are looking at what has worked well and what has not worked well in the whole Thames area, it is fair to say that the west of London is more affluent than the east of London, partly because of the lack of connectivity east of London compared with that to the west of London. Chelsea and Battersea trade very well and the transportation links are very good. Richmond and Twickenham are north and south of the Thames and interlink very well. However, when we come to the border between Essex and Kent, the Thames is like a brick wall between the two counties. Those two affluent counties cannot trade with each other to their full potential because of that lack of connectivity. I argue that option C would change that fundamentally and provide the connectivity that is lacking.

Stephen Metcalfe Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons)

I agree very much with what my hon. Friend is saying about the lack of connectivity between Kent and Essex. That may well be a barrier to economic growth, and one argument for a new crossing is that it will stimulate such growth, but option C is a halfway house. If we were really trying to develop economic growth, we would go for something further east, perhaps linking Canvey with north Kent—an option D road solution.

Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

That is an interesting idea. I think that the cost would be astronomical, but having more crossings is essential. Perhaps it could be a plan for the future. At the moment, we do not have anything east of Tower bridge other than the Blackwall tunnel and the Dartford crossing, and vehicles relying on the Woolwich ferry to try to alleviate some of the problems is simply not a solution.

We have mentioned before the failure of commerce to take off in the area east of London. When we talk to businesses in the area, we find that they desperately want option C to happen. We can speak to the garden city builders, the local enterprise partnership, the Freight Transport Association, Eurotunnel, the road haulage industry and Lakeside and Bluewater shopping centres. We can speak to almost any organisation outside the Gravesham area and, in Essex, the Basildon and east Thurrock area, and what it wants is for option C to happen. The Thames Gateway project has been held back as a result of a lack of infrastructure. The infrastructure is not there to support the commerce that is desperately needed in that area. Therefore, in Kent at least—the situation may be different in Essex—we are hard-pushed to find a business or organisation outside the Gravesham area that does not think that the solution to the problem is option C.

Another reason for that is that option C, according to Highways England, would enable vehicles still to travel at 70 mph. If we built another crossing at Dartford—option A—vehicles would be restricted to 50 mph. That is another clear reason why option C is the preferred route for so many organisations and people.

Another reason is that, with option A, there would be six years of roadworks on Britain’s worst stretch of road, at Dartford. It would be catastrophic for our area if we had to deal with that problem. It would affect the whole region as it has never been affected before, and hold back the south-east region in a way that it has never experienced, if we had six years of roadworks preventing vehicles from travelling from Kent into Essex and in effect closing off that whole area. The consequences of those restrictions would be catastrophic for the area both financially and in terms of people’s quality of life. If we build option C, the roadworks will not affect the current crossing. They can be dealt with in isolation at that location; they do not need to impede the traffic that is using the crossing now.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock mentioned an option D. There could also be option E, F and so on. Some people have put forward the so-called A14 option, which is preferred by my hon. Friend Mr Holloway. It would be a 5-mile tunnel that simply ran parallel to the M25 in the east, coming off the M25, I believe, south of junction 2 and connecting up roughly around junction 30.

Highways England estimates that option C will cost £4.5 billion and take 10 years to build, but it is half the length of option A14, so I shudder to think what A14 would cost and how long it would take to build. The closest that we have come to a quote for that was in the answer to a parliamentary question tabled back in May. The estimate was that it would cost some £6.6 billion to build option A14. That would be prohibitively expensive. I have worked out that that tunnel would be roughly one fifth of the length of the portion of the channel tunnel that is under the sea. That gives people some idea of how long the A14 tunnel would be, and I am not aware of even any geological surveys having taken place. Frankly, a route that simply runs parallel to another and works more or less as a relief road, as opposed to a separate route, is simply not a viable project.

Some 30,000 leaflets were delivered in my constituency in support of the A14 option. They pointed out the virtues of that idea to my constituents and asked them to contact me to support it. Well, however many leaflets were delivered—we are told that it was 30,000—I have had just one response since then. The idea cannot exactly have taken Dartford by storm. It is not seen as a viable alternative by the people of Dartford—not in my experience, anyway.

I therefore conclude by saying that we need the lower Thames crossing to be built east of Gravesend—option C—and in the meantime we need Highways England to come up with innovative ideas as to how we can mitigate the existing congestion at the Dartford crossing. I ask the Minister to listen to his own traffic experts at Highways England, who favour option C, and to almost every business that has expressed an opinion on the issue. Listen to the local enterprise partnership, the garden city builders, the Thames Gateway, Bluewater, Lakeside—the list goes on. I ask him to listen to the haulage industry, but also to the people of Dartford, who have suffered immeasurably as a consequence of the Dartford crossing. It has affected the quality of life of local residents in a way in which no other area of the country has been affected. In Dartford, we are sick to the back teeth of congestion at the Dartford crossing, and we therefore ask that a plan be put forward swiftly to deal with the existing problems, but also, and most importantly, to have the lower Thames crossing built where it gives the motorist an alternative, which is east of Gravesend—option C.

Stephen Metcalfe Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons) 4:47 pm, 7th December 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your leadership, Mr Owen. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend Gareth Johnson on securing the debate, although there is a sense of déjà vu about it, given that we discussed this issue at some length only three weeks or so ago and it seems to have occupied my inbox for most of this year. However, that does not mean that this is not a very important debate and we should not rehearse the arguments time and again to see whether new explanations or opportunities arise.

I have great respect for my hon. Friend. We came into Parliament at the same time and have worked on a number of things together. However, on this issue we are fundamentally divided. We agree about the principle and about what we are trying to achieve, it is just that we have completely different ways of achieving it. I want to put it on the record straight off that this is not about pushing the problem from my constituency to his, or pushing it to that of my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price from that of my hon. Friend Mr Holloway. It is about doing what we believe to be right.

I want to state from the outset that although I fundamentally oppose option C, that is not just because it would go through my constituency; it is because I do not believe that it would solve the problem. This is a once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-generation opportunity, so anything less than solving the problem where it actually is would be, in my opinion, a lost opportunity. We need to finish the M25. Anything else will be a waste or a mistake. It never got finished in the first place.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham were here—he would have been were he not out of the country—he would say that our hon. Friend the Member for Dartford should be down on his knees begging for option A14, begging for a solution at the existing crossing. I understand my hon. Friend’s opposition to that. I understand why he and our hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock are opposed to a solution where the existing crossing is. Their constituents have suffered, as my constituents have, immeasurable amounts of congestion. It is hideous, and we all know that, but if we put in a solution that does not solve the problem, they will still be suffering hideous amounts of congestion.

I want to paint a picture. It is a picture of a future where, despite my objections and all the evidence I have presented to the various Roads Ministers I have met and to the Secretary of State that option C will not work and will fail to tackle congestion at Dartford, option C—the “road to nowhere”, as it has been described—gets the go-ahead. The Secretary of State signs it off with the Minister’s advice and off goes option C into its next stage, cutting through huge swathes of countryside in Thurrock and across the fenland, which is destroyed and lost forever. Houses—some of them newly built—are demolished. A tunnel is constructed between Gravesend and Tilbury and miles of new motorway is built across the green and pleasant land that once was Thurrock.

On the first day the Minister is there, accompanied by the Secretary of State, with scissors in hand. There is ribbon cutting, fanfares, cars flowing beautifully and lorries arriving from Dover and heading off to wherever they are going, enjoying the views of the green and pleasant pasture from the motorway. That leaves the 86% who want to use the existing crossing—we can dispute whether it is 14% who want to use the new crossing, but it is around that, and that is Highways England’s figure—sailing onwards towards the existing Dartford crossing, enjoying a 14% increase in capacity on both the bridge and the tunnel. The traffic is flowing beautifully as far as the eye can see until—bang—an accident at the tunnel mouth, which is not a rare occurrence.

The written answer I received from the Department for Transport on 23 March 2016, in response to a question I tabled on 16 March asking how many times there had been delays or tailbacks caused by closure at the Dartford crossing, said:

“Typically there are in excess of 300 incidents per year resulting in partial or full closures of the Dartford Crossing. On average each incident takes approximately 27 minutes to deal with, often requiring a lane closure for safety.”

The impact of that means it can take up to

“3 to 5 hours for the road condition to return to normal.”

In response to another question that I tabled on the same day, asking how many times the Dartford crossing had actually closed in the past 12 months, I was informed that there were nine unplanned bridge closures due to either high winds, broken-down vehicles, collisions or police-led incidents, and that the west tunnel had closed five times and the east tunnel 12 times. Looking at those answers, I fail to see how a new crossing up to 15 km away from junction 2 on the Kent side, and 9 km away from junction 30 on the north side, would ease congestion at the existing crossing.

Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

My hon. Friend heard the figures that I gave on the number of accidents that we have had on the approach. Whenever that happens in the future, Highways England cannot inform freight coming from Dover that there is an alternative, because there is not one. It can only tell them about the congestion that exists. If we were to have option C, they would at least have a choice that does not exist today.

Stephen Metcalfe Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons)

My hon. Friend has read the next point in my speech. The fact is that vehicles would have to commit to an alternative long before any incident happened. Just look at the map—I know that I am not really allowed to use props, but there is a useful map that shows how far the existing crossing is from where drivers would have to commit to when going north to option C or coming south around the M25 to option C.

So there we are tootling around the M2, on to the A2, and unbeknown to us there is a prang, as I described, at one of the tunnel mouths. It instantly loses 50% of capacity. However, we are already past junction 1 on the A2/M2 and we do not know there has been a prang. We are already in the flow of traffic and are committed to the route that we are taking, whether we are in a car or a lorry. Instantly, traffic starts backing up at the Dartford crossing.

The same scenario applies on the north side. Indeed, when I made these points to a logistics company based very close to the crossing in Thurrock, it said that the traffic backs up at the rate of a mile a minute when the crossing closes. Even allowing for exaggeration, the point is clear: a crossing far from the existing one—where we know that it fails because of its importance around the M25—will do nothing for Dartford or Thurrock residents, for Essex or Kent residents or for anyone in the south-east of England, because vehicles will be trapped.

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