Published: 15:49, 17 August 2020
| Updated: 09:55, 18 August 2020
Opponents to Lower Thames Crossing proposals have slammed Highways England over a ‘flawed’ consultation process.
Four weeks of consultation on refinements to the design of the Lower Thames Crossing between Kent and Essex ended last week, having sought feedback on landscaping proposals, updated paths, and further environmental mitigation plans.
But Gravesham council was quick to respond in the aftermath, expressing "continuing anger and frustration at Highways England’s approach to public engagement".
Reiterating its strong opposition to proposals, council leader Cllr John Burden said the authority was being "continually thwarted" in its efforts to protect the interests of people and businesses, by a lack of clear information.
He said they had been left confused by a number of changes to the proposals, adding: “I am dismayed that there remain a considerable number of points which the council has raised in response to earlier consultations which have not been addressed in the documents provided by Highways England for this latest round of engagement.
“Where is the detail on Highways England’s aim to support sustainable local development? There is no evidence of that here in Gravesham.
“Where are the replacements for the leisure facilities that will be lost at Cascades leisure centre and our open spaces?
“Where are the details on a discounted charge for Gravesham users of the Lower Thames Crossing and the Dartford Crossing?
“Where are the details on the training and skills development programmes for Gravesham residents?
“The lack of information is unforgiveable, and that’s before we even start on the environmental issues we have raised previously and the new ones to arise out of this latest consultation.”
In its response, the council raised concerns over the inclusion of a number of noise barriers along the A2 in the North Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which imply Highways England has information about high levels of noise disturbance in the area.
It also highlights the inclusion of electrical sub and switching stations, access tracks, and noise barriers all adding to urban clutter along the route, which is all in the Green Belt.
The council also has serious concerns about the potential impact of loss or partial loss or problems accessing a range of formal and informal recreational areas at the same time including Jeskyns, Southern Valley Golf Course, Shorne Country Park, and Cascades.
Cllr Burden noted there were "huge holes" in the information relating to environmental impact, and noted that Highways England's documents failed to mention the ongoing climate emergency at all.
He said the project would put a huge question mark against the borough's ability to achieve its target of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
“The fact it does not even warrant a mention in the consultation illustrates perfectly how fundamentally flawed the process is," he added. “It is simply unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, anti-crossing campaign group Abridge2far has also slammed Highways England for the lack of feedback from previous consultations.
Spokesman Bob Lane, who is also Gravesham Borough Councillor for Shorne, Cobham, and Luddesdown, and chairman of Shorne Parish Council, said: “Highways England has stated in the consultation that they are not proposing any further changes, other than the minor tweaks in the latest version. In other words, don’t bother to raise any other concerns or make any suggestions, because we’ve already made our mind up.
“It is not surprising that the number of responses has fallen from 47,000 in 2016, to 29,000 in 2018, to just over 6,000 earlier this year,” said Councillor Lane. “Most people think 'why should we bother? Highways England will do what it wants to do, irrespective of what we say'.”
“There are no real improvements to the design, it will still cause massive destruction to the green belt and create rat runs through our local roads and villages, and the frequent problems at Dartford will continue. I feel sorry for the people of Gravesham and Dartford.”
Highways England says the latest refinements were based on feedback received from the supplementary consultation held earlier this year, as well as "ongoing design work, and a greater understanding of technical constraints."
They said the consultation was arranged principally online, in accordance with the government’s latest guidance on managing Covid-19.
Highways England's website had nearly 41,000 visitors, an online exhibition saw over 13,000 visits, and more than 1,000 people responded to the proposed design refinements.
Members of the public were also able to order consultation materials to their home, and "telephone surgeries" were arranged.
The Lower Thames Crossing proposals include 14.3 miles of new roads connecting the longest road tunnel in the UK beneath the Thames to the existing road network. Supporters say it will almost double road capacity across the Thames east of London, connecting communities, reducing delays and providing more reliable journeys.
A planning application is due to be submitted later this year.