The representatives from Highways England presented an update centred on engagement plans, outlining a brief summary of plans for the coming months. Highways England were currently seeking advice regarding the appropriate level of engagement within the Purdah period.
The Thurrock Business Representative queried whether Thurrock Council would be given longer than the statutory minimum of 28 days. Highways England were looking to extend the response period above the minimum. The Thurrock Business Representative advised Highways England that it the earlier the better since Thurrock Council, as the host Authority, could feed into the process and give advice and contact suggestions.
Various Members of the Task Force expressed their wish to see sections of the route tunnelled, particularly in areas of high population. Tunnelling would provide mitigation against noise pollution, light pollution, visual impact and increased air quality problems. There was tunnelling proposed where the route re-joined the M25 and it had formed a huge part of the Crossrail scheme to protect London residents, so why not for the benefit of Thurrock Residents? The Representative from Highways England advised there were any constraints around height and location. They were currently in the process of obtaining feedback and would need to consider concerns not only from residents but also environmental specialists and engineers. There were concerns such as flooding, air quality, noise pollution and the many factors would be taken into account as part of the design process. Highways England would work to remove as many concerns as possible.
Councillor Little stressed that the Task Force should be a way of obtaining information and as such Highways England should regularly update Members as to what changes are being made to the design model. If variations were being considered that would be viewed positively it would be beneficial to know and similarly if certain aspects would not change Members needed to be aware so they could pick their battles. Highways England advised that they did not wish to be too early with their plans if they might still change, to which Councillor Little replied he would rather the Task Force receive minor updates at each meeting than an entirely new design after 6 months, to allow Members to understand how the design was progressing.
The Chair requested responses to the business case and the grounds upon which proposals for a crossing further East were dismissed. Officers at Highways England were still digesting the information within the response from the Planning Inspectorate but would be able to say more at the next meeting of the Task Force.
Councillor Okunade sought clarification as to what Highways England hoped to consult with residents upon, since many residents were unsure. The engagement plan was currently in the date-planning stage and as such precise details had not yet been established. It was hoped that they would be able to provide more details around route alignment, environmental impact mitigation and similar topics but the mobile information events were about receiving information from residents. These events would be an opportunity for Highways England to hear concerns prior to the formal consultation process.
The Thames Crossing Action Group Representative highlighted that a meeting was held the day after the previous meeting of the Task Force at which Highways England presented details which the Task Force had heard were not yet available. In his opinion Highways England were more willing to share information with potential investors than Local Authorities. Comments had been made regarding the proposed route opening up Green Belt for potential growth and he queried whether this land would be exempt from requiring approval to develop. The Highways England Representative was not present at the previous meeting of the Task Force but apologised assuring Members that no less information should have been shared with them than other groups. Highways England would have to apply under the development consent order to develop any Green Belt land, with clear justifications. As for any other development around the route, any application would be subject to the standard planning process.
Councillor Allen expressed his view that it would be better to spend more money to ensure the overall impact on the health and wellbeing of Thurrock residents was lessened. He didn’t want the route to be entirely over ground simply because it was the cheapest option, since no price could be put on health.
The Task Force stressed that Highways England should provide a full and detailed outline of their engagement plan advising who would be contacted, when and where. There were also significant technical complexities involved with the scheme so he urged them to consider when it might be necessary to have technical experts present. Highways England agreed to take these points on board regarding the technical nuances, and further meetings would be held to provide more information regarding possible mitigation and any other necessary information to be relayed.
The Chief Executive had been assured a plan around engagement however what had been presented was not overly clear. She reiterated her point from the very first Task Force meeting that Officers, Members and residents all deserved to know what opportunity there was to influence the scheme yet these details had still not been provided. It was suggested that Highways England develop a detailed map which clearly outlined where the design was able to be influenced. The Chair echoed this and also requested that members of the Technical Design team be present at the next meeting of the Task Force.
Members agreed that there needed to be better engagement between Thurrock Council and Highways England. The Corporate Director of Place stressed that it was difficult for conversations to progress without the traffic modelling data to inform the process. The Interim Assistant Director of Lower Thames Crossing agreed that there were severe restrictions as to what work officers could undertake until they had access to the traffic model.
The Director of Public Health questioned, given the areas of poor public health the route would impact and the detailed rationale submitted, whether Highways England would support Thurrock’s request for a full Health Impact Assessment. Highways England assured the Task Force that the request had been noted as part of the EIA Scoping report response and would therefore be taken into account as part of their reaction which should be expected mid-late January 2018.
The Task Force discussed previous comments made by a representative from Highways England around the possible declassification of the A1089. Members were concerned that such a change would have a negative impact on access to the Port, the London Distribution Park and the Amazon site. Members also felt Thurrock could not afford a reduction in its traffic network and the declassification would simply shift the problem from one place to another, especially since the new link proposed would be single lane and would struggle with the significant vehicle movements currently experienced on the A1089. Highways England were still assessing freight movements along the road as part of their traffic modelling.
The Independent Technical Advisor on Environmental Issues recalled that it had previously been advised that environmental surveys would begin in January. She expressed her concern that there would be insufficient time for Thurrock to influence the process. Highways England agreed to respond with more details of their schedule outside of the meeting.
The Thames Crossing Action Group Representative felt Highways England had been very non-committal in discussions around tunnelling. He continued that tunnels would have no impact upon the Green Belt and would therefore be welcome.
Councillor Little urged the Task Force to prioritise their concerns to help ensure they were on the same page as Highways England. He stressed that the desire was to make the situation in Thurrock better than it was at present, not simply mitigate to ensure there was ‘not too much impact’ upon the borough. Highways England welcomed this suggestion and the Chair advised that a list of top priorities would be sent to Highways England to allow their presentations to be more focussed.