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Dartford tolls – consultation

A submission from Dartford Constituency Labour Party (DCLP)

September 2011

Overview

For the people of Dartford, the Dartford Crossing is an immensely contentious local issue. There are genuine and understandable concerns about the impact of the traffic congestion that the crossing inevitably generates for the borough. Quite apart from the impact that this has on local roads, the health threat arising from the associated pollution – given the immense volumes of traffic generated by the crossing, often in a near stationary state – is a considerable cause of worry for many local people. There is also a real sense of injustice, commonly expressed throughout Dartford, that the tolls remain at all – despite undertakings that they would be removed once the revenue raised had covered the cost the crossing’s construction.

The DCLP’s basic stance

The DCLP has always been deeply sympathetic towards the views of local residents who believe that the tolls should be removed entirely. However, the DCLP recognises that no government is likely to agree to give up the highly attractive revenue stream generated by the crossing and that the removal of the tolls altogether is, therefore, an unrealistic expectation. The DCLP also recognises that the government would be unwilling to lose a possible mechanism – through charging – for limiting congestion at the already over-burdened crossing. Accordingly, the DCLP has always stopped short of simply calling for the tolls to be scrapped – on the grounds that such a demand could not be practically delivered. Instead, the DCLP has always focused on policies to manage the situation at the crossing to mitigate its worst effects for local residents. This has included the following.

  • Campaigning for the installation of congestion zone-style toll payment technology that would remove the need for toll booths/barriers altogether and allow for fully free-flowing traffic. (With free-flowing traffic, congestion concerns would ease significantly.)
  • Ensuring that local residents are appropriately compensated for the consequences of living so close to the crossing. It was Labour’s former MP for Dartford, Howard Stoate, who successfully campaigned for the introduction of the local residents discount scheme and the DCLP totally supports the continuation of that scheme.
  • Ensuring that revenue from crossing is rigidly ring-fenced and used to invest in measures that would tackle the congestion problems that afflict Dartford as a result of the crossing. In particular, the DCLP supports the construction of a second crossing, possibly east of Gravesend, as the most effective means of increasing capacity and dramatically cutting congestion locally for the long-term.

The planned toll increases – an unwelcome approach

While the DCLP realistically accepts that, unfortunately, no government is likely to axe the tolls, the group also sees no scope whatsoever for any form of increase to the current charging structure. The DCLP therefore robustly opposes the proposed toll increases in their entirety.

With the economy still weak, and possibly set to return to negative growth, it is morally wrong, deeply unfair, and economically short-sighted to burden businesses, and hard-working families, with a 66% increase in the cost of travelling between Kent and Essex. Not only is this increase way above the rate of inflation, but it could harm trading, and therefore, job prospects, at the two major retail parks – Bluewater and Lakeside – which are located on either side of the crossing.

What’s more, as a core part of the UK road travel infrastructure – linking traffic and trade from the channel tunnel to the rest of the country – then the crossing is an asset of national importance. To substantially add to the cost burden of those that use it could therefore have severely negative economic implications that go well beyond Kent, Essex and the borough of Dartford. It is a thoroughly unwelcome increase at possibly the worst possible time and it takes no account whatsoever of the very strong feelings of most local people who believe that – not only should the toll not increase – but that it should be scrapped altogether.

Other points

The residents discount scheme.

Even though the consultation document states that the residents discount scheme will remain unchanged, the DCLP  is concerned that – as the tolls themselves rise – then so will the pressure mount to eventually curtail the generosity of the scheme. In simple terms, the DCLP wants the existing 20p rate for local residents to remain unchanged and that, if the tolls are to rise, this should not in anyway impact how much local residents pay. The DCLP therefore urges the government to make a commitment that the terms of residents discount scheme will never be negatively amended – with the only acceptable amendments being to improve further the generosity of the scheme.

The DCLP is deeply concerned that take-up of the residents discount scheme is so relatively poor (roughly 20,000 people) and urges the government to make a serious effort, in partnership with Dartford Borough Council, to bolster awareness and take-up of the scheme. In particular, measures should be pursued to make it easier for people to apply for and retain the discount (there are 150,000 who are potentially eligible) – possibly though online applications, promotion of the scheme alongside council tax bill/electoral registration forms, and systems to allow for automatic renewal.

Future hidden toll hikes

We are further concerned that the draft order makes provision for charges to rise every year in line with RPI, until 2018 – the DCLP is totally opposed to any rise in the toll at the crossing. Given the proposed step-changes to the toll already represents an increase of 66 per cent for cars, we do not believe it is acceptable that further increases should be imposed. What’s more, with RPI at over 5%, contrasted with real wage deflation and GDP growth of only 1.6% (a figure that could yet slow), then such measures will impose a considerable burden on already hard-pressed crossing users.

Toll suspension mechanisms

Finally, the DCLP notes that the government has put in place a mechanism to suspend the tolls during periods of extreme congestion at the crossing. However, the conditions for triggering this appear so onerous – a 10 mile traffic tail-back – that instructions for temporarily suspending the tolls will be issued too infrequently to be of practical use. On that basis, the DCLP calls for the establishment of a far more reasonable set of congestion criteria for triggering temporary toll suspensions. Specifically, the criteria should actually be able to benefit Dartford residents – at present the criteria is based upon the emergence of a tailback that would have to stretch well beyond the borough’s borders before it could be triggered.

The need for a second crossing

Longer-term, it is essential that the core problem – the crossing’s capacity is easily exceeded by traffic demand – is comprehensively addressed. For this reason, it is essential that the government commits to the construction of a second crossing much further down river and that it enacts measures to ring-fence revenue from the existing crossing to help finance that construction. The precise location of a second crossing would need to be a matter for detailed analysis, but it must be located sufficiently distant from Dartford (possibly east of Gravesend) so as to avoid an exacerbation of the significant congestion and pollution problems that already afflict the borough and its residents.

Attachment: The DCLP’s responses to the specific consultation questions posed by the Department for Transport

CONSULTATION RESPONSE FORM                  

 PART 1 - Information about you

Name Dartford Constituency Labour Party (DCLP) – Chair, Jonathon Hawkes
Address 99 Kent Road, Dartford, Kent
Postcode DA1 2AJ
email
Company Name or Organisation
(if applicable)
Please tick one box from the list below that best describes you /your company or organisation.
Small to Medium Enterprise (up to 50 employees)
Large Company
 * Representative Organisation
Trade Union
Interest Group
Local Government
Central Government
Police
Member of the public
Other (please describe):
If you are responding on behalf of an organisation or interest group how many members do you have and how did you obtain the views of your members:
If you would like your response or personal details to be treated confidentially please explain why:

 PART 2Your Comments

1. Do you agree or disagree with the approach of increasing the charges for cash payments for all categories of vehicle by broadly equivalent rates? Disagree
Please explain your reasons and add any additional comments you wish to make:The DCLP sees no scope whatsoever for any form of increase to the current charging structure. With the economy still weak, and quite possibly set to return to recession, it is morally wrong, deeply unfair, and economically short-sighted to burden businesses, and hard-working families, with a 66% increase in the cost of travelling between Kent and Essex. And, as the crossing is core part of the UK road travel infrastructure – linking traffic and trade from the channel tunnel to the rest of the country – increasing the charges could have severely negative economic implication for the rest of the UK.

 

2. Do you agree or disagree that current rates of discount should continue to apply for Dart-Tag account holders? Agree
Please explain your reasons and add any additional comments you wish to make:The existing discount rates should not be changed – unless it is to make them more generous still. We would also argue that discounts for dart-tag users should be extended until free-flowing charging is introduced as any measures that can reduce congestion and the amount of time that cars are sitting idle is to be welcomed.

 

3. Do you agree or disagree with the approach of introducing changes in 2011 and 2012? Disagree
Please explain your reasons and add any additional comments you wish to make: The DCLP thoroughly opposes any form of toll increase (see question 1 above).

 

4. Do you have specific comments on the draft Order (at Appendix B)? YES
Please explain your reasons and add any additional comments you wish to make:The draft order relates to the specific changes to the charging structure – the DCLP opposes any increases whatsoever to the existing charging structure. We are further concerned that the draft order makes provision for charges to rise every year in line with RPI, until 2018 – the DCLP is totally opposed to any rise in the toll at the crossing. Given the proposed step-changes to the toll already represents an increase of 66 per cent for cars, we do not believe it is acceptable that further increases should be imposed. What’s more, and with RPI at over 5%, contrasted with real wage deflation and slowing GDP growth, then such measures will impose a considerable burden on already hard-pressed crossing users.

 

5. Do you agree or disagree that the current terms of the Local Residents Discount Scheme should remain unchanged? Agree
Please explain your reasons and add any additional comments you wish to make: The local resident discount scheme should remain unchanged at the current 20p rate and the DCLP calls upon the government to make a commitment that the terms of the scheme will never be negatively amended – with the only acceptable amendments being to improve further the generosity of the scheme.

 

6. Do you agree or disagree that other details of the charging regime (i.e. times of operation, vehicle categories and exemptions) should remain the same? Agree
Please explain your reasons and add any additional comments you wish to make: The charging regime should simply remain unchanged in its entirety – now is not the time to burden people with extra costs.

 

7. Do you agree or disagree with our assessment of the impacts of the proposals particularly on small firms and protected equality groups? Disagree
Please explain your reasons and add any additional comments you wish to make: The DCLP believes that there will be a considerable economic impact on small firms and hard-pressed families in the Dartford area from an increase in the tolls and this does not appear to be given sufficient weight in the government’s impact assessment. What’s more, we are not convinced that sufficient consideration has been given to the health implications arising from excessive traffic-generated air pollution, as well as noise levels, on local residents.