We are dismayed that the Government has today (July 6th) announced that the £250m lorry park the size of Disneyland will go ahead in the Kent countryside at Stanford. The Government is to start construction at the Stanford west site which will open next year.
We have argued that this is not the right solution and we need to look at the whole transport strategy, not least for the devastating effects of air pollution on the crowded and congested south east. This is a costly sticking plaster – £250m is almost the entire UK cycling budget.
It is galling that the Transport Select Committee listened to our arguments and agreed that the case had not yet been made to build this “gargantuan” concrete lorry park and other options should be considered, including a network of smaller lorry parks. Those committee findings seem to have been completely ignored.
Last week Hilary Newport set out her thoughts on the major transport problems facing Kent and called for pause for thought – what follows is her her blog.
It’s nearly a year since Kent endured over a month of the misery that was Operation Stack. Various stretches of the M20 were closed while thousands of HGVs, unable to cross the channel during the ‘perfect storm’ of industrial action at Calais and security breaches at the Eurotunnel, were forced to queue on the motorway. The costs and the knock-on effects of Operation Stack are still raw in our memories, and, understandably, national Government recognised at last that this is a problem which must not be borne by Kent alone.
Meanwhile, at the other end of Kent, the appalling effects of air pollution from traffic grinding slowly through the congestion at the Dartford crossings were becoming more and more apparent. There are parts of Dartford where life expectancy is demonstrably shortened as the result of high levels of airborne pollution. The Government had already highlighted the congestion at Dartford as a problem of national significance and, again understandably, has committed to come up with a solution.
So it was as the result of national commitment to tackle two of Kent’s pressing problems that project teams from within Highways England undertook consultations on two very different projects over the winter of 2015-16.
The first was the consultation on which of two adjacent locations should become the site of an enormous HGV park, to get HGVs off the M20 in the event of disruptions to the channel ports or the channel tunnel, reducing the need to close the motorway and divert traffic to other roads.
The second was on which of two locations (more capacity at Dartford, or a new tunnel east of Gravesend) should be favoured for a new Thames crossing, to alleviate the intolerable congestion and air pollution at the existing crossings.
These very different projects shared several features in common, nonetheless. Neither of the consultations offered any real choices other than the ‘either/or’ binary options proposed in HE’s consultation documents. Nor did either of them appear to take any real account of one another, which is a shame; the location of a new Thames crossing could have a profound effect on the routes that HGVs take to reach the channel crossings in the future, and could render irrelevant a decision on the location for a lorry park by the M20 to be used instead of Operation Stack.
Another feature that both projects share is that they offer only sticking-plaster solutions to the real underlying problem, which is the relentless growth of road-based traffic. A far more serious shared feature was the failure of both projects to engage meaningfully with the issues of air pollution, which have been rising rapidly up the media agenda as report after report publishes damning evidence that air pollution is now at levels which are illegal in many areas in the UK. These reports are clear: traffic is a major contributor to harmful air pollution.
Perhaps this is finally the time to step back and think a bit harder about the future of our roads network. New road capacity does not just ease current congestion: it creates new journeys, so that new roads (or new tunnels, or new bridges) always fill up with traffic faster than the rest of the roads network. Highways England’s favoured option for a new Thames crossing is a bored tunnel to the east of Gravesend. The forecast is that, upon opening (in around 2025), this new tunnel would draw just 14% of the traffic at the Dartford crossings. This is a pitifully small reduction to a problem of congestion and air pollution that is already intolerable, and a pitifully small benefit to balance against the blight and destruction of Green Belt and ancient woodland that would be inflicted by construction of the tunnel. If the traffic forecasts are to be believed, congestion at Dartford will be far worse by 2025 than it is now. So how long would it be before the inexorable growth in traffic using our roads brings back Dartford’s congestion to the same levels that we suffer today, and brings the same misery to the communities newly afflicted by the tunnel?
Many of the arguments that are relevant to the location of a new Thames crossing apply just as much to the concept of a huge lorry park to accommodate the HGVs that are delayed in the passage across or under the channel. If we carry on not just accommodating, but actively encouraging, the growth of road-based traffic, then no amount of bridges, tunnels or lorry parks will be enough to ease the burden on Kent’s roads.
The recent report of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee on Operation Stack offered the welcome hint that these two huge traffic-borne burdens facing Kent should not be considered in isolation (and we were particularly pleased that their headline findings on Operation Stack had a lot in common with the evidence that we presented to their investigations).
There must come a time when the incessant growth of road-based traffic ceases to be a good thing for the economy – it has already ceased to be good for the environment, or for those of us who suffer the misery and ill-effects of congestion – and I would suggest that now is the time to give serious consideration to some genuinely sustainable transport planning for Kent and for the rest of the UK.
updated July 6th 2016