HL Deb 24 July 1967 vol 285 cc614-8

2.52 p.m.


(THE EARL OF LISTOWEL): My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Earl of Listowel.)


My Lords, I rise to say how glad I am that this Bill has reached the present stage. I do so because I should like to say a few words about this particular project. I must start by saying something about the history of the matter. There had been a feeling for a great many years that there was a need for some contact between one side and the other of the Thames in its lower reaches. I believe that a shaft was even sunk vertically at Gravesend, but I think that was in regard to a railway. In the mid-'twenties a great deal of discussion, investigation and research went on about the construction of a tunnel and the place where it should be. It was finally decided that the best reach would be between the outskirts of Dartford, in Kent, and Thurrock, in Essex. At that time, there was a good deal of financial restriction, even more than there has been recently, and there was also the feeling that we had won the war which was going to end all wars, so that there was no great hurry about all these matters. So it was that the Act of 1930 authorised the construction of the tunnel which exists to-day.

The Ministry of Transport undertook to make a contribution to the cost, which was estimated at £2,900,000. There was also in that Act the usual time limit which is almost always inserted in such an Act. It read: If the tunnel is not completed within ten years from the passing of this Act then on the expiration of that period the powers by this Act granted to the councils"— that is the county councils of Kent and Essex— for making and completing the tunnel shall cease. That is a very usual clause in an Act of this nature and it applies to the Bill which we have before us to-day. To show something of the difference in outlook in those days, I would mention that that Act provided for the use in the tunnel of horse-drawn and steam-driven vehicles, a requirement which does not apply to-day.

Because there was no need for great speed, it was stated that the expenditure should be spread over a long period. Therefore the building of the roads approaching the tunnel and the work on the tunnel—investigation, and so on—were not done with any rapidity. The result was that by the time the Second World War started very little progress had been made. The pilot tunnel was through, and the shield, which is used to press forward and form the full tunnel, had moved a slight distance, but not very much. If what was coming had been realised, no doubt the tunnel would have been pushed through very rapidly and would have been of immense value during the war to transport supplies and munitions through the tunnel to the Channel ports. But there it was. The tunnel could not possibly be made during the war, and therefore all operations ceased.

At the end of the war, operations got under way again; and, because of the time limit to which I referred a new Act had to be passed to authorise the carrying out of the work; and again the Kent and Essex County Councils were the responsible bodies, as they are to-day. That went on as each of the Acts expired; in the end there were six of them before the tunnel was opened in November, 1963—some 33 years after the original Act. The final Act was in 1962 and gave until 1965, so the work was completed with two years to spare.

To-day the two-way tunnel, one up and one down from North to South, is simply a two-way road. Already it is completely overwhelmed by the traffic. The present maximum capacity is estimated at about 33,000 vehicles; indications are that it will not be very long before it is 40,000. As roads are improved, motorways lead to this two-way tunnel, and it is quite easy to imagine the confusion and delay which takes place and which will continue to increase. One can imagine long queues of cars having to wait so long to go into a road half the width of the one they have just been using that the drivers will find some other way of getting across the river, perhaps by way of Blackwall Tunnel.

I pay special attention to this matter because it is obvious that to make this tunnel a reasonable way of crossing the river at this vital spot must mean the doubling of the carriageways. That is what this Bill, if it becomes an Act, will provide.

The Dartford Tunnel is sometimes compared with some of the other tunnels underneath rivers—the Clyde, the Mersey, and the Tyne. Those tunnels are in heavily furnished manufacturing centres, and they are required to keep industry going on both sides of the river. The Dartford Tunnel is quite different. It is true that there are some factories at each end, but the main feature of the tunnel is not local. As I say, during the war it might have transported munitions from the Midlands and Eastern England, and today it could transport vehicles and goods from those areas to areas South of the river, to the Channel ports and the factories there. Therefore, it is extremely urgent to get this side-by-side tunnel finished without delay.

The important point is that, whereas the original tunnel received financial support from the Government, the finance for this side-by-side tunnel to double the capacity will be provided by the county councils of Kent and Essex. No Government help has been applied for. The experts say that it will take about four years to complete the construction work, about one year for the design work, and so on, but I hope that it may take less than that. But if this tunnel is put on the road waiting list there will be a very long delay. Indeed, the delay may be so great that the existing tunnel will almost fall out of use because it will take so long to pass through it.

Clause 19 provides for completion by 1977, which is too far ahead for the tunnel to be of real use. As the cost of the tunnel is to be borne by the two county councils and not by Government finance, it is hoped that this valuable work will not be put in the road "queue" waiting for sanction. The Ministry issued a report on this, which was considered when the Bill was before another place. The cost of the tunnel and the approach roads is estimated to be about £12.5 million, so authority would be required by the councils to establish loans to finance and carry out the work. The return which they would receive on those loans would be the fees charged to the users of the tunnel.

The Bill was promoted by the county councils named, and the Ministry made it clear that they would give it their blessing. But the councils hope that the Minister of Transport will agree to support an application to the Treasury for funds, and if that application is granted it should be possible to avoid a delay associated with this scheme being included in the road programme. It should stand by itself and avoid that delay and also the very heavy losses. I hope that the Minister will give this her blessing. I would end by saying that I hope this tunnel will be built under a single Act, instead of under six Acts as in the case of its companion.


My Lords, I am sure that the Promoters of this Bill will note carefully what the noble Marquess has said.

On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.