Published: 11:07, 14 December 2020
| Updated: 11:09, 14 December 2020
A revised planning bid for the Lower Thames Crossing is now expected to be resubmitted in April 2021, as highways bosses tease out further "technical" information.
It had been expected to be considered for review by the Planning Inspectorate the same day but instead it was withdrawn – with it later revealed government planners had been poised to reject it.
Highways bosses said they had shelved the application to address specific points raised by the government's planning arm before resubmitting early next year.
Matt Palmer, executive director for the Lower Thames Crossing project, has since sought to reassure residents and motorists blighted by existing traffic problems that the project was still going ahead and in the same place as planned.
In a video posted by Highways England he explained the project bid had been withdrawn in response to a request for more information on a number of "technical areas".
He said: "I realise for the millions of you that get caught at the congestion on the Dartford Crossing and for those of you that are looking forward to the opportunities and jobs available on the project that this project really matters to you.
"So I want to reassure you that we remain committed to putting in our planning application and start construction as soon as possible for this important project.
"What this time does is allows us to enhance our planning application through engaging meaningfully with our stakeholders."
He went on explain the main areas of concern which included construction traffic impacts and certain "navigational risks" flagged by government planners, specifically the use of a jetty on the Thames close to the Tilbury docks.
Other issues related to the management of materials and waste, environmental impact assessments, habitats and landscaping.
These issues were discussed at a Dartford council joint transportation board meeting last Tuesday in which transport planner Lukman Agboola gave a verbal update to members.
Following meetings with Highways England representatives, he told councillors the project had been pulled after the Planning Inspectorate raised issues surrounding the "inadequacy" of information provided.
"They have taken us through quite a lot of exercises about what they need to update in their application," he said. "One of which is the construction traffic impacts.
"There are quite a lot of issues they have got to address before they can resubmit," Mr Agboola added.
"As far as Dartford is concerned, we will continue to engage with them on things like statements of common ground where we sit down with them and talk about things we agree with and things we still have issues on, as well as engaging with Kent County Council on the traffic modelling."
He added Highways England had not confirmed a new date for resubmission but it was expected by the end of the first quarter, and estimated this to be some time around April 2021.
"So it is likely before then we have got quite a lot more work to do with them," he added.
"It is likely before then we have got quite a lot more work to do with them"
"And even at today's meeting they were still struggling about what they were going to be including in their update and to what level of engagement they need to have with local authorities."
Mr Agboola went on to add they had suggested some "ambitious deadlines" which most authorities – including Thurrock and Gravesham councils – "were not quite happy with".
It's been touted as a potential solution to the congestion problems at the existing Dartford Crossing and highways bosses say it will unlock billions of additional economic benefits, double the road capacity and create thousands of jobs.
But the project has come in for criticism from local leaders, campaigners and residents who feel concerns have not be adequately mitigated.
Last month, Gravesham council leader John Burden, whose authority is against the proposals, expressed shock as he said transport leaders were "gung ho" just days before they shelved the bid. Gravesham council and Thurrock Council put out a joint statement, saying they had "fundamental concerns" over the public consultation process.
"We explained we thought the consultation had been very poor and that they had ignored local people," he said.
Meanwhile, opponents from the Thames Action Crossing Group (TCAG) claim Highways England have failed to disclose revised figures published in the government's Road Investment Strategy 2 document – published in March – which show an increased project cost of between £6.4bn and £8.2bn.
And the proposed 14 mile tunnel route also came in for criticism after a report showed the tunnel would create 2m tonnes of CO2 during the building phases, with traffic expected to generate a further 3.2m tonnes over 60 years.
But highway bosses have defended the river crossing which other local authorities such as Dartford and its MP Gareth Johnson claim is crucial to alleviate key congestion on the local highway network.
Last month, Lower Thames Crossing chief executive Matt Palmer told New Civil Engineer's Future of Transport virtual conference he believed it was the "most sustainable approach" to road design anywhere in the UK.
He explained they had extended the tunnel on two occasions to avoid impacting on heritage sites and carried out extensive ground investigations to minimise further environmental damage.
And while he conceded some negative ecological impact was "inevitable" specific mitigation included the erection of seven green bridges wider and larger than anywhere else in the UK.
On cost elements, a spokesman for Highways England Harry Bellew added: "It is normal on projects of this scale to update cost estimates as we continue to refine and improve the scheme to deliver the right solution for the local communities, the environment and the taxpayer.
"As the design develops, we will have more certainty of the costs."