Friday, 5 February 2016

The Thames Double-Crossing

This week's public information events on the new Lower Thames Crossing proposals have been attended by thousands of Kent and Thurrock residents concerned about the latest news on the plans to build a tunnel and motorway through their countryside. Some are even threatened with the life-changing consequences of a compulsary purchase against their home or business with little reassurance that the compensation will be fair. Meanwhile residents of Brentwood a little to the North remain blissfully unaware of their fate just as those of Garvesend, Tilbury and Ockenden were a few months ago.  Before we get to that in more detail, let's recall the history.

Dartford Crossing

It is only 25 years since the Queen Elizabeth II bridge opened at Dartford to relieve traffic on the M25 London orbital, but already traffic has grown beyond the capacity of the bridge and the older tunnels. Each provides four lanes to match the now-widened M25 that feeds it, but with no other crossings East of Blackwall it is a pinch-point that can only ever get more congested. Ten years ago relief would simply have been a case of removing the tolls. With the bridge paid for, they were no longer needed but for some reason the government seemed intent on keeping them despite the hours of misery they brought to motorists and the growing air pollution around Dartford.

Finally the toll booths are gone, replaced with a number plate recognition system that allows free flow, except it is now not enough. Apart from all-to-frequent events of high wind or accident, South flowing traffic over the bridge moves adequately, but traffic through the tunnels in the opposite direction is continually stopped to allow hazardous loads to be escorted through safely. The result is interminable congestion on the roads around Dartford, a problem that everyone agrees must be resolved.

Some solutions seem just too obvious for our common-sense-adverse politicians to implement. One or more bridges or tunnels between Dartford and and Blackwall would be relatively cheap and would go a long way towards solving the problem by removing the bottle neck at Dartford, but of course that would require the tolls at Dartford to be dropped. Some measure to deal with the hazordous loads differently would also help. Would restrictions on such traffic be too much to ask? Could another dedicated two lane crossing nearby be created?

An impression of Boris Island

Instead of such simple ideas we have had ten years of grandiose schemes for long bridges further out into the Thames estuary. Many of these came with the extra feature of a Thames barrier to generate electricity and mitigate London's flood risk. Several proposals of this type were considered, landing on the Essex coast anywhere between Canvey and Shoeburyness.  The grandest of all was "Boris Island", a pie-in-the-sky scheme which included a man-made island with a new airport connected by two long bridges and endless miles of new motorway. While such hair-brained concepts defying all logic were considered, it seemed like the tolls at Dartford lingered purely for the purpose of trying to justify them.

Eventually the penny dropped,  bridges of that sort would have been a barrier to shipping (a more significant constraint now that the DP World London Gateway port is being built near Canvey) and were too long to provide a viable alternative route, but then these glaring facts were probably just minor instruments of their long drawn-out demise. The real missing ingredient was the truck loads of money required for these plans to be implemented.

Consultation options for 2013

Finally, in 2013 a public consultation was conducted to consider three practical routes labelled A, B and C. The sensible alternative was option A adding extra capacity near the existing route, but with government ambitions to increase the population of the South East far beyond present constraints it could only ever be a temporary solution. Something like option A may appear eventually because nothing else will solve the local problem in Dartford, but building it now would take pressure off the other options, and that does not suit the agenda of the masterplan.

Option B also dissolved away after the 2013 consultation (which few people had paid any attention too). It got too much in the way of plans to locate the Paramount Theme Park by the Thames at Swanscombe.   

That left option C to emerge as the winner as announced at the launch of this latest consultation. Where before there was just one route for the motorways running through Kent and Essex we now have three new choices labelled routes 2, 3 and 4. The missing route 1 is just the earlier option A. It must have been ruled out at the last minute before the consultation launched without allowing enough time to renumber the renaming routes.

Consultation options for 2016

With this consultation come details of the exact courses of the new roads, revealed for the first time. In places they plough near or through people's homes leaving them in a state of limbo while uncertainty cloud's their future. The highway's authority seemed to fail to anticipate the PR nightmare that this has produced, or perhaps they just did not care. It certainly could have been done with more forethought for those worst affected.

An opposition campaign has launched in Thurrock with the support of thousands of residents aiming to divert the route out of their borough. This would turn the clock back to impractical options further East that have long-since been ruled out. The only case that can be made to keep the crossing away is that nothing is needed at all and that is a hard case to make unless population increases are going to be reversed. It is easy to sympathise, but the forces at work lie beyond the reach of local politicians to fight. Unless there is a full-scale change of government at the next general election, no political move can really stop option C now. The only questions remaining are where exactly the route will go and how will those affected be compensated.

Why then is this happening? Why was the simpler option A at Dartford put aside? How does option C fit into the bigger picture? Why did a new route 4 appear out of nowhere?

The answers to these questions are hiding in plain sight. The first paragraph of the consultation blurb provides the necessary info "A new crossing is needed to reduce congestion at the existing Dartford crossing and unlock economic growth, supporting the development of new homes and jobs in the region." Forget the bit about congestion. Option A would have dealt with that much more cheaply. The thing any government wants above all else is economic growth. There is nothing that gets world leaders more excited than comparing the size of their GDPs. It is their ticket into the elite cliques of nations such as the G7 and the UN security Council. The reality for the rest of us however is that economic growth is not the same thing as prosperity. Our current growth is generated by a growing population, not growing wealth. Yes, we get more houses and more jobs, but also more people. For ordinary folk economic growth in these terms equates to loss of green spaces, soaring pollution and flooding, and more congestion. The economic indicator which best tracks our prosperity is GDP per capita in real terms. While total GDP for the UK has grown, that has remained static since it dropped during the credit crunch of 2008.

Real GDP per capita
There are plenty of brown field sites suitable for new housing, but the government can't get them built on quickly enough. A prime example is Ebbfleet lying close to the Thames crossings on the Kent side. In 2007 a new station was opened there on the Eurostar line with superfast links into London. Eight years later the only part of the Garden City envisioned for the site that has been built so far is a little cluster of houses in one corner. Developers prefer cheap green belt land to build on and are waiting in anticipation of the great green belt giveaway planned on the other side of the Thames in Essex.
Ebbsfleet waiting to be built
The only thing that can hold up building over green belt on a massive scale in South Essex is the lack of infrastructure, especially roads. The A13, A127, and A12 are already griddlocked each morning with traffic backing into many side roads. Some widening of the A13 and A12 is planned but it is not going to be enough. The Highway authority needs a plan to fix it without spending too much and without raising too many objections all at once.
The solution appears to be route 4 in the new Lower Thames Crossing consultation. It was not seen in any earlier documents but hints in recently released draft Local Plans for Basildon and Brentwood suggest that it has already been discussed widely in closed meetings. The official preferred option for the route North from the new tunnel under the Thames is route 3 which cuts across more quickly to join the M25. Route 3 is shorter and cheaper and less harmful to the green belt. Route 4 also has the problem that it will reuse a stretch of the A127 which will be widened to a three lane motorway. The two lane A127 is already well over its capacity and merging it with two new lanes worth of motroway traffic is like trying to change the laws of arithmetic so that two plus two equals three. Despite these differences, route 3 is said to be only slightly preferred over route 4. Some further advantage must exist for route 4 that they are not revealing.

Given the drive for new housing it is not hard to see what makes route 4 do attractive to the planners. Veteran green belt campaigner Danny Lovey describes it as a Trojan horse in the war against opposition to over-development. The longer course taken by route 4 brings it up to the stretch of green belt between Basildon and Upminster where Brentwood Borough Council are hoping to build thousands of new homes to avert development nearer their prosperous towns along the A12.  A motorway running through it would trash the area making more housing there seem less objectionable.

Yet still there is something that does not add up. The A127 would be overrun with the new source of traffic and that would not help new housing. Junction 29 where the A127 crosses the M25 would also become a bottleneck. Brentwood's plan includes a new "garden village" of 2500 homes on Dunton Hills, but route 4 lounges across it in two diverging lanes like a greedy commuter on the train spreading his legs to reserve space for his mate waiting to get on the train at the next stop. If Brentwood knew this was coming why did they plan to build there? Is Dunton Hills Garden Village just a smokescreen while the real intent is to return to an earlier plan that would see thousands of houses built around West Horndon instead? 

The only explanation that really makes any sense is that route 4 will not stop when it joins the A127. It could continue in a straight line to pass between Brentwood and Billericay, then turn to head across the North of Brentwood Borough and Epping Forest to eventually join the M11. The idea of a bypass motorway so that through traffic can pass North without going on the M25 has been mooted before. It was suggested in a consultation document commissioned by Kent County Council fice years ago. It is perfectly plausible that this is the intended complete route. In fact, anything else is utterly implausible.

Possible route of the M128

Now there is no doubt that such a route would be welcomed by many people. It would effectively be an M128 taking traffic away from the troublesome A128. Apart from the people whose homes would be nearby, why should anyone be against such a new motorway?

The answer is of course that the purpose of such a route would be to promote the development of new housing. The green belt in this area is already under threat. A new motorway would in time bring new developments along its route until the area has changed out of all recognition. The days of quiet villages in the area between the new M128, the M25 and M11 would be numbered. A new motorway would provide the road infrastructure needed to justify a new garden city served by the easily accessible stations of crossrail through Brentwood and Shenfield.

Later this year the conclusion of the consultation will be revealed. If route 3 is selected it will be a problem for those living close but it will not signal wider changes. If route 4 is the choice it can only mean one thing: The government plans to bury South Essex under a sea of new houses with probably just a few strangled country parks remaining of its former green belt. As well as those in Basildon who are obviously close to the route, people living further North around Brentwood in particular need to pay closer attention to what is going on. For those in Thurrock, if you agree that a longer route leading to the M11 is a terrible idea then please don't vote for route 4. You have until the 24th March to make your opinion known in the Lower Thames Crossing consultation.

Update: Paul Hawkins found this old newspaper article on the KCC route it shows a very similar track to the one a pictured above. This is potentially scandalous. If it really is their intent to secretly revive this old plan then we appear to have caught Highway England in the act of trying to pull a fast one on the people of Essex, especially the residents of towns on the hidden half of this route which includes Brentwood, Billericay, Mountnessing, Ingatestone, Highwood, Blackmore, Willingale, The Rodings, Fyfield and The Lavers

An online version of the article can be found here

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