Lower Thames Crossing – thoughts from Gravesend

Hundreds of people turned out to a public meeting at Gravesend last night to hear about the consultation on the Lower Thames Crossing. I was pleased to be on the ‘top table’ alongside Highways England Consultation Manager Martin Potts to be able to put CPRE Kent’s case for a more sustainable transport strategy, and grateful for the support and kind words of the audience.

It was never my intention to speak at this meeting to argue the relative merits of either Option C (HE’s preferred option of a tunnel east of Gravesend – look at the picture below for a very benign ‘artist’s impression’ which leaves out all of the industrial infrastructure, lighting, power substations etc etc) or Option A, which is more capacity at Dartford.

Our response to the consultation is going to make it absolutely clear that we believe both choices offer unacceptable environmental damage, blighting lives and livelihoods, against a backdrop of already intolerable levels of air pollution from traffic.

Lower Thames Crossing image

No-one doubts the huge problem of congestion that already exists in north Kent, and it is a problem that needs solving now.  But I want to consider whether the only solution to this problem is an expensive and damaging new road crossing, wherever it might be.

To help explain our reasoning, I’m focusing on  the issue of road freight.  About a quarter of the vehicles using the current crossings are HGVs and goods vans; as a nation, we are heavily reliant on road based freight: The efficient flow of goods and services is essential to UK and wider economies, of course. But the number of HGVs that travel through the channel crossings each year is already growing at about 8% per year, and the port of Dover has ambitious plans for expansion.  This continued (and unconstrained) growth appears to be happening in wilful ignorance of the consequences for the wider highways network, the environment, or the health and wellbeing of our communities.

Most of this road-based freight using the channel crossings has to cross the Thames; very little has its origins or destination in Kent. The short crossing across the Channel is quick and cheap for the freight companies, but the real costs arising from ever more traffic are borne by the environment and the communities along the rest of the route. This traffic brings no real economic advantage to Kent, just pollution, noise and congestion which is potentially now requiring a very expensive ‘fix’.

A new Thames Crossing might ease current congestion, and accommodate traffic growth for a while, but we know that all new roads fill up, and they fill up quickly.  It would be a shame to lose sight of the lessons we’ve learned from the past. A good example is Newbury Bypass, notorious in the mid-1990s for the protests that made Swampy and his colleagues famous as they climbed trees and dug holes to try to stop the diggers starting work.

The Promoters of the bypass argued it was essential to improve road safety and to end the intolerable congestion in Newbury town; the objectors were fighting to stop the destruction of 120 acres of mature woodland and sensitive habitats. Despite the the objections, the bypass received go-ahead in 1995 and finally opened in 1998.

The studies that took place after the bypass was opened make grim reading. Traffic on the bypass grew at double the rate of traffic on comparable roads in the area, and there is clear evidence that this was induced growth (i.e. new journeys) rather than traffic that was displaced from other congested roads. Within 7 years, the traffic in Newbury town centre was back to its pre-bypass levels, the accident rate in the area was up, and the species of rare snails that had been expensively relocated were found to be locally extinct. 10 years on and with £100m spent, the situation in Newbury was worse than before.  There are many similar examples where promised befits of road schemes did not deliver.

So before we make a commitment to a new road we need to ask whether it will do what is promised.

If you are responsible for trying to tackle congestion or manage transport networks, it’s important to look to the lessons learned to understand whether new road building will help or hinder those aims.

If you are responsible for managing public expenditure, you need to know whether public money is actually delivering public benefits.

And those of us who are the target for the current consultation all need to be confident that a road scheme will genuinely improve conditions, before we can even begin to weigh up the environmental damage against those benefits.

Induced traffic is a reality: The introduction to the Consultation Document highlights the importance of “stimulating economic growth – unlocking access to housing and job opportunities”.  But I think that there is a very important difference between unlocking genuine potential on the one hand, and on the other, creating a vacuum that pulls in unsustainable growth into the already overstressed south east, just as the Newbury bypass pulled in traffic growth for no long-term improvement in congestion.

Rather than focusing on ever-more roads, which will be as full as ever before long, we are calling for a serious re-think and for a genuinely sustainable integrated transport strategy that doesn’t foster and encourage the growth of road-based freight through Kent.  We should certainly focus on getting more freight off road and onto rail. The Consultation Document (p 10) makes it clear that rail has been ruled out, on the basis of earlier studies dating back to 2009: I think that this is an appalling throwaway decision which flies in the face of any definition of sustainability.

Things have changed since 2009.  If we are at risk of forgetting the lessons we learned at Newbury, are we also at risk of forgetting last year’s experience of sweltering through over 30 days of summer with Operation Stack paralysing the county’s roads?  The transport links on which we rely are clearly not resilient and unconstrained growth of ‘business as usual’ just isn’t an option any longer.

Before we commit to any damaging road building scheme, it’s time to re-think the practice of concentrating so much of the nation’s trade through such constrained and unsustainable links: we are putting all our eggs in a frankly fragile basket.  60% of all UK freight travels on HGVs via the channel crossings: most of this is travelling to or from places north of the Thames: some of it even crosses at Dover to travel on to Scotland or even Ireland – the fact that this is the cheapest option available for hauliers to move their stuff from ‘A’ to ‘B’ makes it quite obvious to me that our transport systems are blisteringly unsustainable.

So instead of another Thames Crossing, let’s look at ways to incentivise smart use of ports of entry and exit that don’t rely on onward road travel across the Thames, (London Gateway is rapidly expanding, Harwich or Felixstowe could take more freight, Liverpool is crying out for more custom). Let’s move goods in/out much nearer to their points of destination or origin; we could do a great deal to restore resilience to our existing transport network as well as cutting the existing congestion and pollution.

We need a solution that will serve us well into the 21st century, not just a continuation of ‘business as usual’ that will at best give us some short term benefit for all sorts of very real and lasting harm.

The last gentleman who stood up to speak last night made a brilliant statement.  He made it very clear which option we need.  We need ‘Option Sea’.  Sir, I salute you.

To read more on our view on the LTC click here.

Hilary Newport
March 3rd 2016.


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