Cyril Townsend – 1985 Speech on the Dartford Tunnel

Below is the text of the speech made by Cyril Townsend, the then Conservative MP for Bexleyheath, in the House of Commons on 21 October 1985.

I am grateful to have this opportunity, on the first day that the House is back from the long summer recess, to raise an issue of considerable interest and importance to my constituents in Bexleyheath, Barrehurst and Welling, and to the travelling public—the Dartford tunnel. To be more precise, there are two deep-bored tunnels between Dartford and Purfleet, just to the east of my constituency. The first was opened in 1963, the second in 1980. They are the joint responsibility of Kent and Essex county councils, which built them and operate the toll booths. The Dartford tunnel joint committee acts in a proper and prudent financial manner.

Technically, the two-lane tunnels are part of the A282, which runs from the M25/A13 junction to the M25/A2 junction. They are not part of the new, and yet to be completed, M25, which is a Department of Transport responsibility. They have a unique position in the national motorway network, and one that is clearly ludicrous and should have been tackled years ago by a Secretary of State for Transport.

Rightly, the M25 is the Government’s motorway priority—the jewel in the motorway crown. The delays in its construction—a regular subject for Adjournment debates over the years—are a national disgrace, but we all hope that by Christmas next year we in Greater London will at last have a bypass. When it is complete, there will be much trumpeting by Transport Ministers, both male and female, and much joy among Britain’s ever-expanding army of drivers. However, that army will soon become painfully aware that the jewel is flawed, and that while the motorway may be splendid, the growing queues at Dartford are certainly not.

The success of the M25 in attracting traffic, and each year more traffic is attracted, is far beyond that originally envisaged. The density at the Dartford tunnels is becoming similar to that on parts of the M1 and the M4. Inevitably, breakdowns in the tunnels are becoming more frequent. The highest recorded figure so far for vehicles travelling through the tunnels was 83,379 on 25 August this year, a bank holiday weekend, when traffic, involving many of my constituents, queued for five miles north of the tunnels. Regularly, the Department’s forecasts of traffic flows have been absurdly low. A Government-commissioned traffic forecast study was published in July. It predicts long delays at Dartford by the late 1980s and the early 1990s. After making some sensible assumptions the report suggests that about 85,000 vehicles per day will want to use the tunnels on an average day in six years’ time. The study states:

“By the end of this decade excess demand is likely to be causing summertime delays of between one and two hours.”

This is on a major motorway. It claims that when the annual average weekday traffic reaches 70,000, public complaints about the traffic delays will become fierce because drivers will have become accustomed to fast and free-flowing progress along the M25. The report thinks that when the annual average weekday traffic reaches 75,000

“conditions will be unacceptable through the summer months.”

​”Unacceptable”.

Exactly so. Already the Government have foolishly left it too late to avoid these problems, because it would take about seven years to construct another deep bored tunnel. Last week The Economist said 10 years. The Department has blundered and people know it. We debate tonight bad Government administration. The motorist and lorry driver will pay the price for years ahead—and British industry, too.

The Dartford tunnel began life as a purely local crossing. The planners should have seen the clear need for the M25 to have its own crossing. The Dartford tunnel is Britain’s biggest planned bottleneck. Future queues may be 10 miles long. Time won by the £1 billion M25 will be turned into time lost at Dartford. It is futile for the Department to go on talking about median flows and isolated peaks. At this late hour the Minister of State must carefully consider all the possible new ways of improving the M25 crossing at Dartford, and some of them are most interesting. A bridge at Dartford, either suspension or stayed girder, might be constructed. This might take less time and money than a tunnel. The local topography would make it difficult to align the bridge approach roads with the A282 in Kent. Perhaps the private sector could take up the challenge and fund and build a new crossing, using the very latest technology. The great need is for action. That is what I call for tonight.

In a recent letter to the British Road Federation the Minister of State wrote:

“We are well aware that time is not on our side in the Dartford tunnel and we do not intend to let more of it slip past without taking action in this matter.”

With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend — I am grateful to her for coming along tonight to reply to this debate—that is exactly what my constituents fear will happen.

The Minister will remember that I led a delegation from Movement for London, which has done excellent work on this subject, to raise this matter in November 1984. I have had lengthy correspondence with her Department. She has taken the trouble to visit the tunnels but I do not need to tell her that the Government’s response to this long-contemplated congestion has been ridiculously inadequate, presumably because she has not had the support of the Treasury.

The Government gave a grant of about £7 million to build 12 extra toll booths, making 24 in total, which opened in July, and to widen the approach roads. This temporarily relieved the pressure, but it was like thickening the walls of a sandcastle as the tide comes in. Six lanes of motorway cannot go into four lanes of tunnel, and sometimes one tunnel is blocked for repairs.

I should be grateful if the Minister of State could answer the following questions. If she cannot do so immediately, perhaps I could have a written reply in due course. The Minister has announced that she will commission an engineering feasibility study into how a new crossing could be built. Who are the consultants to be, when will she receive the results of the study, what is the earliest date when we can expect a Government decision, and exactly how will the new crossing be provided? Is it possible to bring the date forward?

What measures are her Department taking to warn motorists of delays next summer so that they can divert from Dartford if necessary? Where are motorists supposed to go instead of Dartford? Will they have to go into the London borough of Bexley? Will EEC funding be available for the new crossing?​

It is wrong to argue that a third crossing at Dartford will remove the need for the east London river crossing, which is long overdue and essential for dockland. The routes serve entirely different functions. When it is built, the Bexleyheath constituency will have protection on all sides from strategic traffic crossing it.

Current predictions are that, with the increasing flow of traffic, existing debts for the Dartford tunnels will be repaid before the end of the century. I hope that my hon. Friend will not argue tonight that the imposition of tolls is appropriate because the tunnels provide a local service to road users with the need to travel between Essex and Kent. Believe it or not, that has been the Department’s line until recently.

We are discussing a national asset. It is located on the country’s motorway network and provides direct access between the M1, M11 and the Dover ports. Tolls are not paid where the M25 crosses the Thames to the west of London.
Bexley council fears that if the tolls continue, traffic travelling from or to the Dover ports and the other eastern and southern locations, once on the A2, will continue through to Falconwood and use the east London river crossing to travel northwards.

My constituents who face ever-increasing costs to travel through the tunnels, would like tolls to be abolished before too long. Bexley council has said:

“no bridges within London are tolled; the Rotherhithe and Blackwall tunnels are not tolled; the Woolwich Ferry is the “Woolwich free ferry” and it has been made clear that it is not proposed to charge tolls on the proposed East London River Crossing. It is unlikely that any of these crossings of the Thames have the national significance of the Dartford Tunnels. Kt is apparent, therefore, that the imposition of toll charges only at the Dartford Tunnel is inconsistent.”

If we are to have such tolls, far more sophisticated thinking must go into their collection. I have in mind a range of possible reductions and easy ways to pay for special users and the latest electronic aids to cut out delays.

Some of my hon. Friends may believe that all that can be done at this stage is damage limitation, after too little has been done too late for too long. But problems have their possibilities. If the Government can summon courage and imagination, bring into play the skills and enthusiasm of free enterprise and, above all, act decisively, the problem could be solved in a manner that will be of lasting benefit to the people living in the locality and to the country’s transport needs.