The announcement of the Government’s preferred route for the Lower Thames Crossing serves only to shape the battles to come.
Trumpeted as a solution to traffic problems at Dartford, it risks duplicating them downstream: yet practical rail freight alternatives are available.
The Lower Thames Crossing would see new motorway standard roads built across countryside in Essex and Kent, linking the M25 and A2/M2 with a new road tunnel from east of Tilbury to Gravesend, under the Thames estuary.
In the year since the consultation, the tide of evidence and policy has turned against major new roads. The CPRE report has exposed afresh the folly of believing new roads can cure congestion, while a review of the busy SW section of the M25 has come out against widening it.
Air quality, carbon reduction and biodiversity erosion are key environmental areas where targets are being missed, and major road schemes will simply make things worse.
Much has been made of the huge volume of consultation responses, yet this is far from an endorsement of the final choice. While Highways England held lots of exhibitions and encouraged groups like Dart Charge users to respond, the options in the consultation were very limited, and mostly focused on variations of the favoured Option C.
The Lower Thames Crossing Association points out that this route will cut through Green Belt designated prime agricultural land, destroy a number of properties, cut communities in two and spread air pollution to even more people.
Meanwhile Highways England consultation documents admit that "our proposed scheme would have an impact on local communities as well as cultural heritage and landscape. These include areas of greenbelt, the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and areas of ancient woodland”. They go on to say “All route options would potentially affect areas of ancient woodland and protected species such as water voles, great crested newts and birds.”
There are bland assurances on future mitigation but no specific proposals and therefore no ability to judge whether these would prove effective or make the scheme acceptable.
No wonder that community groups and environmentalists are outraged. Leaders of rival political groups on Thurrock Council have united to condemn the plans, with the Leader calling it "the worst choice out of a terrible bunch" while opposition leader Cllr John Kent summed up widely-shared views:
“We don’t want our green belt destroyed and we don’t want our homes destroyed.
“We don’t want an ill-thought through scheme thrust upon us and the country as a whole.
“And most of all, we don’t want the queues, congestion, and pollution shifted five miles downstream as a new motorway cuts our borough in half.”
It’s not just bad news for communities along the route. The proposed crossing is bad value for the tax payer too. The £billion cost (estimated variously from £4.4bn to £6.2bn) will deliver just 13 miles of motorway standard road and time savings of around 10 minutes.
Those same sums invested elsewhere could halve the pothole backlog, fund over 10,000 electric buses, build at least 2,000 miles of cycle superhighway (that's Lands End to John O'Groats twice over), or provide support for vital bus services nationwide.
Communities across the country are facing the challenge of population growth increasing demand for travel and transport (best served, we would argue, by public transport not more cars). But the extra pressure for the Lower Thames Crossing is not from local travel but from freight.
The longstanding problems caused by cross-Channel lorries are well-known, and exemplified by Operation Stack and new proposals for a major lorry park. Adding another road crossing simply encourages more traffic onto an already congested network.
Then there’s Brexit. It’s not clear if the amount of traffic through Dover will reduce once we leave the EU, but it will certainly take longer to clear customs, throwing current traffic assumptions up in the air. It all adds to an uncertain climate, not one in which to bank on the Lower Thames Crossing being a smart investment.
Yet practical alternatives are available, at a fraction of the financial and environmental cost.
Existing freight terminals north of the Thames at London Gateway and Tilbury have spare capacity and good rail freight connections – unlike Dover. This is where the future lies. London Gateway has launched new services to China, while Tilbury is currently consulting on expansion plans including a new rail freight link.
Sending more freight to ports north of the Thames would relieve pressure on Dartford without having to build a new crossing. And reducing the number of HGVs on the roads would have multiple benefits, including for safety, carbon emissions and air quality, as well as road maintenance.
The battle does not end here: with the formal planning process to come, there’s still plenty of time to make the case for a positive alternative.