Another consultation document to go through. Another online form. Another swamp of documents. They are drowning us in data.
This is the Community Impacts Consultation for the Lower Thames Crossing issued by the UK government agency, National Highways (formerly Highways England). Again and again we go over the same ground. (We have blogged on these matters before). For over three decades the Department of Transport has been determined to build a new section of the M25 Motorway, apparently to deal with repeated congestion at the Dartford Tunnel and Bridge, east of London. The Department has pushed scheme after scheme and initially said that they were trying to find ‘the best route’ across the Lower Thames. ‘Option C’ was settled on in 2017 and now the full pressure of the state – and the road construction lobby – bears down upon the communities of North Kent and Southern Essex, determined to bludgeon them into consent. This consultation is one more truncheon in their armoury.
The ‘Lower Thames Crossing’ is a misnomer. This is not a ‘crossing’, a term that implies a ferryboat or a shallow ford. It does not even go ‘across’ the wide brown Thames as she meets the salt North Sea in Gravesend Reach. Rather the plan is to build a tunnel under the Thames – the longest such tunnel in the UK – and crucially to build 14 miles of motorway that will draw traffic away from the M25 at the rate (they proudly assert) of 13 million vehicles a year.
The scheme is heavily contested. There has been active opposition for years by individuals, groups and councillors across Kent and Essex – and through the Transport Action Network, from far beyond. This scheme is less well known that the Silvertown Tunnel that is planned to be built further up the Thames, closer into London and which also being bitterly fought over. This massive scheme has faced determined resistance from groups including Choked Up and Extinction Rebellion as well as the key councils from both sides of the Thames. There’s been direct action and in the heat of last June 600 marched from through Newham with samba band and banners.
In the Lower Thames the struggle is led by the stalwart Thames Crossing Action Group, who have a brilliant website jammed with information. Among the Group is Laura Blake who spoke so articulately at two of the Crude Britannia events which Platform ran as part of Estuary 2021 in May this year.
The front page of the National Highways website is uncharacteristically revealing in one key line. It says the Lower Thames Crossing is
MUCH MORE THAN A ROAD
Indeed it is. National Highways intend this statement to celebrate the proposed new areas of replanted woodland, the myriad jobs the project will generate over its six years of construction, and the apprenticeships it promises. But the statement reveals the deeper truth of the scheme. This motorway is much more than a road: it is a weapon of climate destruction.
It is fundamentally a highway in entirely the wrong direction. The agency says the scheme will ‘explore new ways to reduce emissions’ and ‘help build our low carbon future.’ But these lines are laughable and fraudulent. The very essence of the scheme is that it will make travelling by car and truck easier, for it intends to reduce congestion at the Dartford Crossing. It is highly unlikely that it will reduce traffic flow at Dartford, but this would not come from a reduction in the numbers of vehicles on the road. Easing traffic will only incentivise people to travel by car. A true attempt to ‘reduce emissions’ would be to invest in the rail networks of Essex and Kent, and indeed make then link up. Such a rail line was proposed in 2008, but seems to have been dropped in the intervening 13 years.
The scheme blunders and bludgeons its way ahead, aided by its own inertia and the sheer weight of government funding. But it is detached from the unfolding realities around it. In the past decade the signals of Climate Chaos have become ever louder, so much so that they have fired the movement that has changed both national and local government policy.
On 25th June 2019 Gravesham Borough Council– on the Kent side of the Thames – declared a Climate Emergency. It stated that they:
‘pledge to do what is within its powers and resources to make Gravesham Borough Council carbon neutral by 2030, taking into account both production and consumption emissions’
Four months later Thurrock Borough Council – on the Essex shore – made a similar declaration, to go Net Zero by 2030.
The proposed motorway would drive six lanes of traffic through the heart of both Gravesham and Thurrock and is scheduled to open in late 2029. This thundering roar of petrol and diesel engines will apparently arrive just in time to make a mockery of any attempts by the two boroughs to reach their CO2 emissions targets.
The Climate Emergency in Gravesham was announced by the Leader of the Council, Councillor John Burden, and had been piloted to this point by Councillor Sarah Gow. These two were both democratically elected on a manifesto that included strong resistance to the motorway. MPs and individual County Councillors on both sides of the river have opposed the scheme. Although shockingly, Kent County Council is for it. However, resistance has been brushed aside by central government, which declares this motorway to be of national importance. It joins a long trail of projects planned out by Whitehall and Westminster that overrule the concerns of those that live in any particular place.
For this massive scheme has a long history. It is essentially a child of Abercrombie’s Plan for Greater London published in 1944, which proposed the remodelling of the capital and its region into an oil city, a Petropolis. (We describe the background and impact of the plan in our book Crude Britannia.) Now nearly 80 years later, the three refineries that were built in the Thames Estuary have all closed, but this has not meant that the London region has left petro-culture behind. The weight of traffic on the M25 is ample demonstration of this and enables the Highways Agency to demand this new motorway.
And the scheme is intended to have a long future. The timeline on the consultation document runs little beyond the proposed opening of the scheme in 2029. However as the document declares, the first element of the crossing at Dartford was opened nearly sixty years ago. We can assume that the proposed scheme has a projected life span of a similar length, out to say 2070. Nationally we are supposed to have reached Net Zero twenty years prior to this.
This motorway is a twin to the planned oil fields West of Shetland, including the now notorious Cambo field which faces stiff resistance from the #stopcambo campaign. These oil projects are intended to produce fossil fuels into the 2050s. Their construction would set in concrete and steel part of the future of Britain. The ‘Lower Thames Crossing’ is likewise, it is indeed much more than a road, it is an essay in tarmac. It is an attempt to set down a certain distorted vision of the future for this region.
We need to radically reduce petrol and diesel vehicles on the roads, and not simply imagine we can replace them with electric vehicles, by implementing a just transition to other forms of transport, and other notions of travel. And this needs to be mirrored by a shift in thinking in capital. We need to move away from industries that are driven by the need to profit from building Motorways such as these, and shift away from drawing income from shares in such industries. Both Kent and Essex have been woefully slow in moving to divest their pension schemes out of equities in oil and gas companies, they still build the future security of their staff on corporations that are pushing forward Climate Chaos (see https://www.divest.org.uk/councils/.)
The motorway of the Lower Thames Crossing takes us in entirely the wrong direction. It is time to change direction, NOW. Give your support to those opposing the scheme.
Thanks to Jane Trowell & Ben Lennon