Lower Thames Crossing boss says UK megaprojects face delays due to planning hurdles

While the tunnelling contract for the £9bn Lower Thames Crossing is soon to be awarded, the project’s executive director has said that UK megaprojects are being delayed by difficult planning conditions.

The proposed Lower Thames Crossing scheme involves the construction of 23km of new road in east London, including two 4.2km long tunnels under the River Thames.

Speaking at a webinar on Wednesday (29 November), Lower Thames Crossing executive director Matt Palmer said that tunnelling contracts for the project are about to be awarded, with the government due to make a planning decision on the scheme in June 2024. If the plans are approved, construction is currently expected to start in 2026.

“We’re about to award our tunnels contracts, and we’re about to be part of planning examination, which then leads to a government decision to go next summer,” Palmer said.

National Highways submitted a planning application for the Lower Thames Crossing scheme in November last year.

It has already awarded Balfour Beatty the £1.2bn north of the Thames roads contract as part of the project in January this year.

It announced the shortlist for the project’s £2bn tunnelling contract in April 2021. The list includes a joint venture between Bam Nuttall, Ferrovial Construction and Vinci; a joint venture between Bouygues Travaux Publics and J Murphy & Sons, supported by Mott MacDonald and Arup; and a joint venture between Dragados and Hochtief Infrastructure.

Planning delays

The tunnelling contract award will be major step for the project, which has been hit by delays in the planning process.

In November 2020, National Highways withdrew a previous application for a development consent order following feedback from the Planning Inspectorate that it needed to include more information in relation to construction plans and environmental mitigations.

Speaking at the recent webinar, Palmer put some of the planning delays with the project down to difficult and unpredictable permitting conditions in the UK.

“Back in 2008 we put in a Planning Act that ran fine until about 2016. Ever since then it’s become more and more problematic with these delays, which means that bringing projects into being in the UK is probably the most challenging at the moment as it has ever been,” he said.

Another element that Palmer said has created more delays in planning relates to expectations about carbon emissions on megaprojects.

While carbon emissions for the overall economy have decreased since the 1990s, he said that carbon emissions from construction have increased. As transport decarbonises, the carbon challenge shifts to construction.

“We’re about to introduce Lower Thames Crossing into an environment that has got a dramatically changing attitude towards carbon, in terms of its construction, [and] its operation,” he said. “So, it’s a very, very challenging context in terms of carbon, and how that manifests itself in terms of the planning and permitting system is really difficult.”

Economic slowdown

Along with other UK megaprojects, notably High Speed 2 (HS2), the project has also faced delays due to “a challenging economic environment post-pandemic”, said Palmer.

Earlier this year, the government announced that Lower Thames Crossing and HS2 were among several road and rail projects that would be delayed to save money.

“Making publicly funded schemes viable, while you have a large national debt, it’s very difficult […]; it means that every pound you spend is going to [need to] be better spent than ever before,” said Palmer.

He claimed that there was now a “lack of trust” towards megaprojects, which made their delivery even more challenging.

“UK politics is dominated by High Speed 2. Historically it’s been driven by Crossrail, with previous projects etc, where we have seen projects not necessarily delivered on their original prices. And there was a lack of trust in the megaproject environment. So, we’ve got to do all of this in a world where actually people doubt whether we actually say what we mean,” he said.

However, Palmer said that the Lower Thames Crossing was “a simpler product” than other megaproject schemes like HS2.

“Although we are big, and that brings some complexity, it’s a simple product, so we’ve got a really simple business case.”

Net zero commitments

He also said that the Lower Thames Crossing scheme was among the “next generation” of megaprojects that would differ from projects that were approved in the 2010s, such as HS2, Tideway and Hinkley Point C.

The project’s commitment to being net zero is one thing that makes it different from earlier projects, said Palmer, who is keen to make the Lower Thames Crossing project “the greenest road ever”.

“We are going to try and break that paradigm that big infrastructure is bad for the environment, and it’s not sustainable.”

As part of the project’s commitment to net zero, it will be the first major UK infrastructure project to use hydrogen to power heavy construction machinery.

National Highways on Wednesday (29 November) announced the four businesses that have been shortlisted to supply over 6M kilograms of hydrogen for use on the Lower Thames Crossing project. The firms are Air Products, BOC, BP Oil UK, and Inovyn Europe.

Palmer delivered his talk as part of the International Project Management Association (IPMA) and the Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction (UCL) Megaproject CEO series.

Source: Ground Engineering

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