The representatives from Highways England presented their plans for consultation and engagement as the scheme progressed.
The Chair stressed that information should not only be shared digitally, elderly residents and others without access to the internet must receive information at the same time as others. Highways England stated they were keen to represent everyone and would do their best to ensure information would be sent in the best way, taking guidance from Thurrock Council, as information should be open for access to all. There were currently 250-300 interest groups, stakeholders and businesses to be contacted and 47,000 responses had been received at the options phase. The Chair requested the data from the 47,000 responses and noted that Thurrock Council had not received a copy of the consultation report. These responses covered all stakeholders for the scheme but, following discussions around legal issues, a response would come to the Task Force. As for the consultation report, it had been published on the Lower Thames Crossing website as part of the preferred route announcement.
Regarding interest groups, the Director of Public Health noted that there was no mention of health agencies. Public Health England were mentioned however it was expected that Local Authorities would engage with more localised health authorities. The Director of Public Health reiterated that Highways England should be engaging with local hospitals, the Clinical Commissioning Group and GP surgeries.
Councillor Okunade questioned whether landowners and property owners that were stakeholders had been identified. The Highways England Representative hoped that this had been fully completed, though there may be some whose property or land lay just outside the redline boundary that had not yet been contacted.
Highways England also held a profile sheet on Thurrock Council, as with all the major Local Authorities affected by the proposal, which was important for strong and direct engagement. Highways England had recently appointed a sole representative responsible for the interests of Thurrock Council, Ian Kennard, who would attend meetings of the Task Force moving forward.
Councillor Jones asked if the aim was to deliver objectives to the Council and local residents. Adjustments could be made taking on board issues concerning the local area.
The Thames Crossing Action Group Representative questioned how there could be a positive outcome with a route through Thurrock, given it was already one of the worst polluted areas with high levels of cardiovascular disease and cancer. The Highways England Representative advised that stationary traffic led to poor air quality therefore air quality should improve. Air Quality was a national issue and motorists needed to be smarter in their movements. A more detailed answer required the baseline to be completed and measured against the correct data but Highways England had already agreed to work with Thurrock giving joint instructions to consultants.
The Thames Crossing Action Group Representative highlighted that £10m had been spent on the current crossing. 86% of traffic was expected to remain and 14% would not reduce the traffic sufficiently to ‘get Thurrock moving’. The proposed Lower Thames Crossing would do nothing to alleviate the stagnated M25 and problems at the Dartford Crossing. The Highways England Representative assured the Task Force that ways to help the existing crossing were being explored and there was a need to look at the wider network as a mature operator. The Department for Transport was also considering funding methods and a full commitment would be required to enable the road network to work all the time.
Councillor Allen requested that Thurrock be the first to know details of development within its boundary, including clarification of further steps so Councillors could keep residents fully informed and advised. Highways England should also consider sharing information through the local papers, social media and other methods.
The Resident Representative questioned how many roads in Thurrock were managed by Highways England. She noted that the table regarding air quality excluded any roads directly managed by Highways England and, given the high number of heavily congested roads within Thurrock which were managed by Highways England, this data was a misnomer. She also requested that the information be made more understandable for local residents. The Highways England Representative agreed that information needed to be accessible and understandable, therefore as much analysis as was necessary would be undertaken to ensure this was the case.
The Vice-Chair stressed the serious situation around air quality, as the borough was the worst outside London. He continued that tunnelling was common in London and requested that Thurrock be given the same level of mitigation in areas of major population. The welfare of residents was a key responsibility and junctions elevated to 10m would not look after them. He asked that Highways England seriously consider redesigning the scheme so that the interchange would be underground.
Councillor Jones queried whether the traffic data regarding the A13 was up to date. Thurrock was often gridlocked at present and he felt that this problem would extend further into Essex if the crossing were to go ahead. The A13 was under a lot of pressure and the data around freight movements and London Gateway Operations were still required. The traffic model data was still incomplete and thus could not be released but once it was complete the aim was to offer relieve on the A13 and in the centre of Grays.
The Chair stressed that the Task Force and all elected Councillors, had a duty to residents and therefore would leave no stone unturned regarding proposals. Highways England aimed to ensure the scheme had as low an impact as possible and reminded the Task Force that the design was not final, there was need to listen to residents, the Council and other stakeholders to ensure the right solution.
The Highways England representatives outlined the design scheme including locations of cuttings, elevations and junctions. Councillor Jones queried the route through Tilbury and East Tilbury. The original scheme for the preferred route through Tilbury, East Tilbury and Linford had been higher. Now everything was ground level or lower with the exception of elevated sections crossing the Tilbury loop and Linford Road. Councillor Jones questioned whether tunnelling had been considered to address the visual impact, it had not at this stage.
The Resident Representative noted that the proposed areas to be in cutting were mainly in those areas with low population figures. She expressed the view that Highways England only seemed to mention Tilbury, and had paid no heed to communities of East Tilbury, West Tilbury and Linford which would see elevated sections in close proximity to residential properties. She asked why the route could not be tunnelled in those sections which passed by homes. Highways England were also considering these options as part of the design process, a model would help to make the design clearer and easier to understand.
Councillor Little noted the massive change in the proposed design since the last iteration seen by the Council. Some of the changes were pleasing but he felt there was still a long way to go. He recognised that if the final decision was that the crossing should go ahead the Council should work to ensure the scheme had as little impact as possible on the local communities. He sought assurances that local roads, bridleways, cycle paths and similar routes would not be cut off. The Highways England Representative confirmed that all existing routes would have crossings to maintain access.
The Chair noted that a new tunnel had been announced as part of the design, though it was outside of Thurrock.
The Vice-Chair interjected that it might be helpful for the large-scale map to be emailed to Members. He was surprised by the proposal for crossing the railway at East Tilbury and added that, like those in London, tunnels would save the issues of up and down, and the impact on residents and the environment. He noted that 14% of traffic was expected to divert from the existing crossing however with 6,000 trucks coming from developments in Tilbury most would opt for the new crossing over Dartford. It would be impossible to provide an answer until the traffic modelling was complete, as a natural shift was expected for some traffic from the existing crossing but also there would be new movements not yet in place.
The Thames Crossing Action Group Representative sought clarification regarding the proposed interchange at Orsett, which appeared very complicated with elevated and lowered sections. He asked how local connections could remain intact. The amended scheme ensured that Baker Street would no longer be cut off and saw a roundabout introduced near Orsett to connect the A1013 and the A1089. The aim was to keep local connections separate from key points. The Thames Crossing Action Group Representative raised his concern about linking the A1089, albeit potentially declassified, with Stanford Road and urged Highways England to work to prevent the route being used as an ‘escape point’ in the event of accidents on the wider network.
The Chair also expressed concern regarding the net effect of the new crossing, which would see Thurrock entrapped between two routes and creating a huge problem of cross-borough traffic.
Councillor Allen felt the scheme would be devastating to Thurrock, both in terms of the visual impact and health factors. It risked driving a stake through the heart of the borough’s areas of natural beauty and historic significance. He asked what mitigations would be in place for the elevated sections. He felt that acoustic fencing should be a minimum requirement but also requested that in areas of high population cut and cover be in place to reduce both noise pollution and impact on air quality. The Highways England Representative outlined that they had a duty to mitigate against all impacts and the scheme could provide benefits through local engagement. Much could be done to lessen the impact and enhance areas around infrastructure, providing an opportunity to invest in the future.
The Chair requested that large scale maps be provided to each elected Member of the Council and continued to question plans for the route across the Orsett fens. The design currently featured a simple structure though there was a minimum height for maintenance and to ensure traffic could still flow in adverse conditions, as the area was a flood plain. The Chair asked what height the structure would be and was informed that it would stand 5.5m above ground level.
Councillor Little urged Highways England to be explicit that proposals were not currently fixed and final to avoid a risk of miscommunication with residents. Highways England confirmed they were happy to share the current map but with the caveat that it was not set in stone. They hoped to find an appropriate way to display details of the scheme to everyone but there were questions about how to ensure everyone could see it. A virtual reality model would allow for improved understanding of elevations and sightlines, but not everyone had digital access. Thurrock Council’s assistance would be welcomed in finding the best solution.
The Vice-Chair welcomed these assurances. He mentioned that parts of the A13 were covered with ‘quiet tarmac’ and asked whether it would be used for most of the route for the proposed crossing. The Task Force was assured that much could be done through civil engineering to make a scheme pleasing and low-noise surfacing was a Highways England standard.
Councillor Allen raised concern around the impact of construction and sought assurances that no works would be undertaken outside of normal working hours Monday to Friday to cause as little disruption as possible to residents. No definite commitment could be given around the construction of the tunnel itself but Highways England would work closely with the Council to achieve the best outcome for Thurrock.
The Representatives from Highways England left the meeting at this point.