£9bn Thames tunnel faces axe amid fears over Tory infrastructure plans

Rishi Sunak failure to commit to HS2’s northern leg has raised concerns about the future of several large-scale transport projects

The future of several prestige transport projects, including a planned £9bn road tunnel under the Thames, are in increasing doubt this weekend after prime minister Rishi Sunak failed to commit to building the northern section of the HS2 high-speed rail line to Manchester.

MPs and transport industry experts now believe that a number of other schemes, including the Lower Thames Crossing, intended to link Kent and Essex, as well as a new tunnel under the Stonehenge world heritage site, face more delays and may never be built as costs soar and political commitment wanes.

On Saturday night, the Department for Transport refused to commit to pressing ahead with the Lower Thames Crossing, which has costs per mile way above those of the HS2 high-speed rail line because of the proportion that involves tunnelling. It is the subject of a planning inquiry.

Earlier this year, transport secretary Mark Harper delayed the crossing by two years, citing “challenging economic headwinds”.

Meanwhile, Tory MP Danny Kruger, who was recently selected as Conservative candidate for the new East Wiltshire constituency, which will include Stonehenge, has written on his website that the prevailing view is that the controversial scheme in his area will never be built.

This is despite Harper having approved the plans to dig a two-mile tunnel near Stonehenge only as recently as July. The scheme, costing £1.7bn and rising, is designed to speed up journey times on the A303, a key link to south-west England.

While accepting the urgent need to end traffic bottlenecks on the A303, Kruger said: “Whether this justifies a hugely expensive and disruptive building project, with some real threats to the historic landscape, with the end result of denying anyone a free sight of Stonehenge... is a good question.

“Public opinion appears split. There are those who want nothing to change, those who want a tunnel, those who want the A303 made a dual carriageway with or without flyovers or bypasses. The overwhelming view I pick up, however, is that this project will never actually go ahead. I have no idea whether it will, though currently the government’s policy is to continue pushing against the legal obstacles.” Other projects that were delayed by Harper earlier this year and are now in fresh doubt include the A27 Arundel bypass and the A5036 Port of Liverpool access road.

In July, the all-party House of Commons select committee on transport said the government should think carefully about hugely expensive new projects and focus on ones it can definitely deliver on time and on budget. The committee said: “In the face of increasing costs, looming net zero commitments and an ageing network in need of maintenance, the department needs to ensure that future road investment strategy portfolios are deliverable. It is time for the government to reconsider its portfolio of expensive, complex SRN [strategic road network] enhancement projects.”

At the Tory party conference, which opens in Manchester on Sunday, Sunak is expected to focus on other measures to help motorists – rather than big new schemes – including filling potholes and limiting the ability of local councils to impose 20mph speed limits.

In a series of local radio interviews on Thursday, the prime minister refused to commit a dozen times to pressing ahead with the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2, the costs of which have been described as “out of control” by chancellor, Jeremy Hunt.

Transport analyst Stephen Joseph, a visiting professor on transport solutions at Hertfordshire University, said: “Much of the focus has been on HS2 but there are other projects that must now be in doubt, particularly the Lower Thames Crossing, which is very expensive and which has not seen any spades sunk in the ground yet.”

Laura Blake, chair of Thames Crossing Action Group, which opposes the project, said: “We believe there is plenty of evidence to show that the crossing should not go ahead. It fails to meet its objectives, and would not solve the problems at the Dartford Crossing, which would still remain overcapacity.

“It would be hugely destructive and harmful, including a whopping 6.6m tonnes of carbon emissions. The cost has risen from £4.1bn up to £9bn as of August 2020, and we believe it will now be in excess of £10bn and a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.”

She added that there were more environmentally friendly alternatives. “Rail improvements between Ashford and Reading with a connection to the Port of Dover would take more freight off our roads and onto more sustainable rail.”

Contributors

Toby Helm, Political editor and Phillip Inman, Economics editor

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