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I believe that there is currently a £60 million surplus from the operation of the Dartford crossing. It lies in the coffers unspent. Legislation has stated that the money should be spent on local infrastructure improvements. Will the hon. Gentleman accept this offer from me? I will back his being given, say, 25 per cent. of that£15 millionfor his local road improvements if he will back my being given £15 million to help build Canvey's third road.
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Dr. Stoate: That is an intriguing idea. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will be my agent and I will be his agent in this deal. Certainly, the hon. Gentleman is right that we need to ensure that a good chunk of the money is put into a local transport infrastructure that mitigates the effects of increased traffic and air pollution generated by the extra traffic that we see.
Even with improvements to public transport and with a rail freight network, additional capacity needs to be built into the road network in Kent Thameside. Urgent consideration needs to be given to upgrading the A2/B255 Bean interchange. The junction currently serves the Bluewater regional shopping centre, Greenhithe village and the A206, which runs to the Dartford river crossings. It is also due to serve the Eastern Quarry development, a 740-acre development that will contain about 7,250 new houses.
The route management study, which has been recently published by the Highways Agency, has acknowledged that the junction must be improved. Dartford borough council and Kent county council have also recognised the importance of this work. However, despite this there is little prospect of the necessary funding being forthcoming in the next few years.
Another factor is pressure on school places. There is a desperate need for the expansion of secondary school places in Dartford. Currently, there is no wide ability county boys' school for children living in most of the north, west and east of Dartford. Many 11-year-olds are now faced with a half-hour train journey just to get to school, which I believe is not acceptable. Kent LEA is proposing to increase the number of secondary places in the area over the next few years but it has no plans to build a new county boys' school in Dartford, where the need is greatest.
What about higher education? The Government's original planning guidance for Kent ThamesideRPG9awhich was published in 1994, highlighted the importance of creating a higher education facility in Kent Thameside as a means of raising the skills profile of the area and helping to encourage the growth of spin-off companies requiring higher levels of skill in north Kent. RPG9a envisaged the development of a 5,000-student campus and also a London science park, supported by GlaxoSmithKline, the borough council and the university of Greenwich. However, neither of these projects came to fruition. In fact, the university of Greenwich has now closed its remaining Dartford campus. North West Kent college is now the only post-18 education provider in Kent Thameside.
The Government's recent skills audit report found that the number of people with skills in the Thames gateway is 20 per cent. below the national average. It warned that unless the problem was addressed, businesses could be forced to move elsewhere. The report says that 112,000 of the 194,000 new jobs that will be created by 2016 in Thames gateway will need applicants with A-level and degree level qualifications. Compared with the rest of London and other parts of the UK, Thames gateway has a significant skills gap, particularly among local residents.
At present, most Kent Thameside residents with higher skills are forced to commute to London. Almost 100,000that is, 12 per cent. of the Kent and Medway
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work forcecommute to London. The percentage is as high as 38 for those who commute from Dartford. About 15,900 people commute from Dartford to London. We need to reverse this trend if Kent Thameside is to be genuinely sustainable.
We must give urgent consideration to the rebuilding of Greenhithe and Dartford stations to increase capacity. Furthermore, the damaging proposals of the Strategic Rail Authority to reduce service levels at the Greenhithe, Stone crossing and Swanscombe must be rejected and reversed. The existing Kent line is already running well over capacity and the plans that have been put forward, when the CTRL phase 2 is open, are significantly to cut back services on the north Kent line. That will have a damaging effect on my local area and it is something that must be examined carefully.
Greenhithe station is at the heart of Kent Thameside and passenger levels at this station are projected to rise considerably in the next five to 10 years, as the housing developments at Ingress Park900 homesEastern Quarry7,250 homesStone Castle500 homesand Greenhithe waterfront950 homesget underway and are completed.
Dartford station, despite being the busiest station in north Kent, is housed in a 40-year-old building and does not have the platform capacity to meet the level of services that use it at present, let alone in the future. Consideration must be given to increasing the capacity at London Bridge and renewing the north Kent network's antiquated signalling system. It is woefully inadequate to meet future needs. It currently takes between 45 and 55 minutes for trains to travel to London from Dartford owing to the inadequacies of the current network. This must be put right.
I asked the mayor of Swanscombe and Greenhithe town council, Councillor Brian Fitzpatrick, who is a senior traffic engineer, to give his thoughts on how he thought the new development would affect the areas of Swanscombe and Greenhithe. He certainly came up with some interesting ideas. He stated that a lack of attention to detail and to local knowledge pervades many of the applications submitted for planning at the moment. Knowledge of the existing situation and the needs and aspirations of the in situ community must be a firm component of all applications, but at the moment it is not given adequate consideration. He believes that true integration can be achieved only if we address fully the needs and wishes of the existing settled community with the needs of an incoming community.
The good news is that Brian Fitzpatrick accepts that there are good and sensible reasons why there should be new communities in Kent Thameside, but unless we get the planning issues right we will come unstuck. That will cause divisions in the local community rather than encouraging integration, which is what we so desperately need.
: I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with interest. He is talking about many contemporary problems. He knows, however, that the gateway is for the future. Does he support the gateway proposals, and will they resolve some of the issues that he is raising?
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Dr. Stoate: That is an extremely good question. The answer is that I entirely support the gateway proposals, but they will work only if we pay particular attention to the issues that I am raising, which I am sure that other hon. Members will raise. I see that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) is nodding. I am sure that he agrees.
Kent Thameside and the Thames gateway development is a marvellous opportunity to regenerate the whole of the south-east, but it will work only if we get the infrastructure right before we go ahead with the development. The greatest mistake that we could make would be to press on with development with already overstretched existing capacity, which in many areas is already at breaking point. That would lead to more damage. There are huge opportunities that can be realised if only we get the development right. It is all a matter of attention to detail. The people of Dartford are behind the development, but whenever I talk to them on the doorstep they say that that is provided we can improve the road network, provided that we can improve the rail network, provided that we can get enough school places for our youngsters, and provided that we have enough health care facilities to meet the needs of the future. We are all in agreement, but the development must be done in the right way.
The people of Swanscombe and Greenhithe want careful co-ordination of what is proposed for the future with what we have now. Again, if we get that right, they will be totally on side with this type of development. The point made by Councillor Fitzpatrick is that no one from Swanscombe and Greenhithe is on the delivery board. No one from the town council in Swanscombe is able to participate in these planning issues. Councillor Fitzpatrick thinks that that is also a mistake. The people of Swanscombe and Greenhithe are asking that it is ensured that there is integration with existing and planned new communities and also that Swanscombe and Greenhithe residents are not disadvantaged by the scale and pace of developments surrounding them.
These people are asking for a few quite simple things. They want the inclusion of the local community in discussions about the size, location and required infrastructure of the planned development. They are asking that more resources be given to Dartford borough council to enable it better to represent its residents. They are asking also for another look at the Kent traffic model to ensure that it is run more often and kept up to date with existing traffic movements. Further, they are asking for targets for air quality that are enforceable to ensure that we do not damage our environment. In addition, they are asking for a close look at the numbers and situations of new developments to ensure that they are sustainable in terms of bus transport and air quality. I do not think that these requests are unreasonable.
If we get these things right, we will all be happy with what we see. If we get them wrong, we will live to regret that. I believe that by proper attention to detail, proper integration of what local people want and proper working with local councils and development boards, we can achieve the aim of us all, which is a bright future that includes the regeneration of old worked-out sites. That is a proud future for the whole of the Thames gateway area.
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