The roads regulator has criticised Highways England for failing to quantify the impact of delays to the Lower Thames Crossing on its budget for the current Road Investment Strategy (RIS 2).
The government-owned company has admitted that construction on the project to build a tunnel between Kent and Essex is now likely to start in 2024, at least a year later than planned, and may not be complete until 2030.
Highways England has so far failed to clarify how the amended timetable will affect funding under RIS 2.
In its latest assessmment of Highways England's performance, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) revealed that delays to large schemes in the development phase have caused a projected underspend of £555m, which 'does not include the expected financial effect of the 12-month delay on Lower Thames Crossing'.
The ORR added: 'We are concerned that whilst the delay was known in November 2020, Highways England was still evaluating the RP2 and total outturn impact at year-end.'
In addition, Highways England’s recently published Delivery Plan Update still gives a projected start date of '2022-23 Q4', albeit noting that this date could change.
The RIS 2 document gives the cost of the project as between £6.4bn and £8.2bn, although it is unclear how much of this funding was originally due to come during the second roads period (2020-25) as part of what is said to be £14.7bn for ‘upgrades’.
The news comes as Highways England has published its latest consultation on the Lower Thames Crossing.
Matt Palmer, executive director for Lower Thames Crossing, said: ‘The new, reliable connection would improve access to hundreds of thousands of additional jobs, offer new opportunities for local businesses, and create and connect new green spaces that are so important for wildlife and local communities.
‘This further consultation is another opportunity for people to have their say before we submit our planning application at the end of the year.’
Highways England is promoting the new link as providing ‘better access to existing jobs for Gravesham, Thurrock and Havering as improved journey times would bring over 400,000 more jobs within a 60-minute commute’.
The work is now set in the context of the Government's newly released transport decarbonisation plan, which pledged to review the national policy statement, which sets out the Government’s policies on the national road network.
Highways England has repeatedly disputed the concept of induce demand, under which additional road capacity creates additional journeys, although it promotes its schemes as facilitating new journeys.
Highways England said consultation documents also include summaries that provide an unprecedented level of information tailored to each local community affected by the project and including details of:
- two new public parks that would remove the need for over 470,000 HGV movements on local roads by beneficially reusing excavated material:
- a 38-hectare park near Gravesend
- a 48-hectare park overlooking the Thames in Thurrock
- more than 260 hectares of new woodland – in addition to the new 100-hectare community woodland being created in partnership with Forestry England, near Great Warley in Brentwood
- 46km of new and improved footpaths, bridleways, and cycle routes, as well as 120% more hedgerows, 40% more ponds, 10% more ditches, and seven new green bridges
- the proposed locations of the construction and utility compounds, and temporary construction roads
- a summary of the predicted impact of the project during construction and operation on topics ranging from local traffic, public transport and cycle paths to air quality, noise and vibration.