Representatives from Highways England presented the update, to provide clarity around the level of engagement and influence opportunities available to the Council and Task Force. Positive interaction would help the shape the project and provide suitable mitigation. The Task Force heard that the scheme was still under development; the alignment had already been lowered from the original proposal to mitigate the visual impact and everything would be looked at in greater detail, providing Thurrock Council with an opportunity to engage.
There were some ‘Project led decisions’ which were unmovable. Highways England would be happy to discuss these areas with Officers, however they were not subject to much influence such as the viaduct over the Mardyke Valley.
The Chair sought clarification around this point. He questioned whether there was any possibility of tunnelling under the Orsett Fens and it was confirmed that this would not be possible. The Chair welcomed a definitive answer as Members needed to be told what would be unmoving.
The resident representative noted that the horizontal/vertical alignment of the route was listed as a ‘project led decision’. She questioned the point further as this implied that local communities would have no say on whether sections of the route were tunnelled or put within cut and cover, as they had previously been led to believe. Highways England advised that the topography of the land would cause limitations but over the past 3-4 months they had sought to ensure the whole scheme was as low as it could be to minimise the visual intrusion, such as the A13 junction would be constructed beneath the existing A13. There would be some sections however with engineering and economic constraints that meant it would not be possible for residents to influence.
The resident representative expressed her horror. One of the key issues was the visual impact upon residents and wildlife and it appeared there would be no choice in the matter, which was not what the Task Force had been led to believe. Highways England advised that, in broad principle, much had been done to mitigate the effects of visual intrusion and moving forward, while the actual alignment of the road might not change, the surrounding area could provide further disguise. The use of tunnels and cuts however were project led decisions and had already been made, such as the viaduct across the Mardyke.
Councillor Jones thanked the representatives from Highways England for being frank and questioned what could be influenced. He was concerned that Members were wasting their time in discussions, such as around near residential areas, if the decisions had already been made. This should be made more clearly at the next meeting. Councillor Jones requested that full details of which sections were still possible for influence and which were not be brought to the next meeting. The Chair highlighted that the purpose of tonight’s meeting was to draw out such information and reiterated that the Council was opposed to any further crossings in Thurrock.
Councillor Little urged Highways England to present business cases to support any decision which could not be influenced, be they based on financial, environmental, or engineering grounds. This would allow the Task Force, and officers, to judge decisions from an informed stance, and Highways England accepted the challenge. He also sought assurances that there would be benefits to local employment through the project and that there would be close attention paid to local congestion, both during the construction phase and for years to come. If the project were to go ahead Thurrock would face 10 years of construction and it was crucial that Highways England were on board.
The business representative stressed the importance of managing construction so that existing businesses were not disrupted; not only the Port of Tilbury but Lakeside had voiced concerns regarding congestion. He reiterated Councillor Little’s previous point about the A1089 which needed to be a post operational decision. Any degradation of the local rail network would be detrimental to businesses.
The Chair queried the exit point from the tunnel, and whether there would or would not be an opportunity to extend the tunnel to north of the railway. He also questioned the potential impact around links to Tilbury. Currently Highways England were still reviewing their options for the Northern Portal and how to move forward. There would be implications on the junction whether north or south of the railway which did put some limit on how much it could be moved. While representatives from Highways England were happy to listen to comments it would not be an easy solution due to ground conditions and disruptions to rail and road networks. At present they were wavering towards staying as intended and facing the ground conditions however officers and the Task Force would be talked through it all at the next meeting.
Councillor Allen stressed that the design of the scheme would be key in terms of health and environmental impacts. He didn’t want the scheme to have huge impacts just because it was the cheapest option and reiterated his plea for Highways England to spend money to safeguard residents of Thurrock.
The resident representative asked what exactly Highways England would be consulting on, given the unmoving project led decisions. To her mind there was no room for consultation as residents could not influence decisions around the main areas of concern. Issues such as noise pollution, light pollution, air pollution and visual impact could not be consulted upon if decisions were already made. The representatives from Highways England assured Members that there were a number of areas for consultation such as construction impacts, use of spoil, mitigate visual impact through treatments and use of more sympathetic materials, landscaping etc. Even if the alignment could not be changed there would be lots around the road to consult upon. The vertical and horizontal alignments made the scheme work, and would be presented in more detail in February. They confirmed that they were happy to go through reasons for decisions as requested by Councillor Little. The consultation was about impact and what needed to be taken on board if alignment remained as is. Highways England had already begun to look at red line because there was space to move it, away from certain houses, businesses and away from the site of a potential school to be built.
Councillor Allen stressed that, whilst the visual impact could be mitigated or disguised, elevated sections would still cause noise and pollution, both of which would have a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of local residents. At the next meeting there would be visual representations of the proposed route and specific areas of concern could be discussed then to focus attention effectively.
Councillor Holloway noted that the scheme would disrupt both the C2C commuter line and the freight line from the Port of Tilbury. He sought assurance that consultations were underway with Network Rail to mitigate against isolations and possessions required. Highways England were engaging with Network Rail with the aim of mitigating any impact to ongoing operations.
The business representative asked what Highways England envisaged in terms of benefits for the local community as a result of the scheme. Highways England were keen to develop the idea of ‘legacy’ with improved employment to local companies, more access to open space and enhancements to the local environment and public rights of way.
The business representative questioned whether local procurement would be considered wherever possible, as he felt this was an important factor. The representative from Highways England stated that an awful lot of tea bags, milk and newspapers would need to be supplied to keep the project running. There would be opportunities for local businesses but this would need to be balanced with sustainability. Highways England were cautious not to create businesses entirely dependent upon the scheme, at risk of falling once the project was complete This was a significant area for further debate at a later stage. Councillors would be able to influence schools and colleges and there were a number of not for profit organisations offering the possibility of training in civil engineering and similar areas, particularly for girls and other diverse groups. It was hoped that local businesses would provide a big platform, especially given proximity to the Port of Tilbury. The Chair noted that training would be welcome, should the decision be made that the scheme would go ahead.
Councillor Jones sought clarification around the junction under the A13. It was confirmed that the junction would not be tunnelled but constructed underneath the existing A13. Visuals would be provided at the next Task Force meeting. Councillor Jones continued to question the ‘No pre-PRA options’ within the project led decisions section. Highways England would not go back to previous route options from before the Preferred Route Announcement. Councillor Jones summarised that until the next meeting Members would remain uncertain exactly what could be done.