Below is the text of the speech made by Adam Holloway, the Conservative MP for Gravesham, in the House of Commons on 28 November 2017.
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 the Member for Dartford (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 the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (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”—
“junctions wherever possible and put in place full mitigation.”
Finally, on “Air Quality”, he says:
“Demonstrate BEFORE construction how new LTC WILL improve already poor air quality experienced in Thurrock.”
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.