20 July 2023

Bridging the gap – a new Lower Thames Crossing will boost growth for the whole UK


Few CapX readers would disagree that Britain is in desperate need of growth. But while politicians have tended to focus on economic activity in the electorally significant Red Wall, less attention has been paid to the south-east. This is an oversight.

Kent and Sussex may be relatively prosperous on paper, but anyone who’s tried to get to cross the Channel for their summer holiday can tell you that the road infrastructure is completely inadequate. This has knock-on consequences for the whole UK.

To understand why, imagine standing on Tower Bridge and looking west – you’ll see just a couple of the dozen or more crossings serving motorists, cyclists, goods vehicles and pedestrians in central London. Turn to the east, and the next crossing is in Dartford, far beyond the horizon and the only pathway for vehicles across the river before you reach the English Channel.

Of all the goods travelling through the port of Dover, 70% will be transported across the Dartford Crossing. Yet this vital thoroughfare is closed for the equivalent of four weeks a year for ‘operational interventions’ – more time than most of us have as contracted annual leave. There are around 3,000 incidents on this bottleneck of road infrastructure every 12 months, with effects felt far beyond north Kent and south Essex. Every time traffic is delayed through the tunnel or over the bridge, it means goods are not being transported to firms and consumers across the country. Businesses are seeing their supply chains disrupted. Supermarkets risk not getting their deliveries on time. Tourists are delayed in getting to their destinations around the UK where their spending power benefits local economies.

The Dartford Crossing carries 180,000 vehicles on a busy day, catering for more than 50m journeys a year – nearly half of which will be goods or freight. That’s roughly quadruple the demand envisaged when the crossing was established in 1963 and, as demand on the roads has increased, far beyond what the Queen Elizabeth II bridge was designed to cater for when opened in 1991.

The demand on Britain’s roads is expected to increase by a further 20% in the next two decades. So, if the congestion on the Dartford Crossing now is deeply inconvenient, by 2040 it will be totally unsustainable. That is not, as some believe, a regional transport issue. It’s a national economic one.

There is an argument that, certainly in terms of goods, the solution to what ails the Dartford Crossing can be found on the rail network or on the Thames itself. And, yes, we should make more use of the river: waterborne freight can reinforce supply chains and reduce carbon emissions. But the reality is the volume of freight is too much for the river and rail to bear.

This is why we need the Lower Thames Crossing, which would nearly double road capacity across London, catering for 13m journeys a year and removing at least a quarter of the demand from its sexagenarian sibling. The crossing would create 22,000 jobs directly or via its supply chains and facilitate easier access for motorists, tourists and freight to the south-east and to the rest of the UK.

National Highways recently announced plans to purchase the largest volume of hydrogen in UK transport history, with the intention of replacing diesel and making the Lower Thames Crossing one of the greenest infrastructure developments. This has broader benefits – accelerating the creation of a hydrogen infrastructure in the Thames Estuary region, which can generate a further 9,000 skilled jobs and £3.8bn for the national economy by 2035.

Earlier this year, the Transport Secretary reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to the Lower Thames Crossing, albeit with a two-year pause – a great reassurance that a critical part of the biggest road investment in our history remains a priority. Some £800m has already been spent planning the construction and consulting with communities, which will benefit from the creation of 60km of new or upgraded pathways for walkers, cyclists and horse riders – three miles for every mile of road – and the planting of one million new trees.

The crossing is now subject to the development consent process and will be considered by an independent planning authority. Its national importance and potential to deliver for the UK economy is beyond question. It can support future inward investment, aiding resources like the Thames Estuary Growth Board’s Investuary platform.

It’s time to green light this national priority.

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Kate Willard OBE is the government-appointed Thames Estuary Envoy and Chair of the Thames Estuary Growth Board.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.