When Jo Johnson resigned from the Government to oppose Theresa May’s Brexit deal, he made clear that he was also opposed to a “no deal”. He said:
“The prospect of Kent becoming the Lorry Park of England is very real in a no deal scenario. Orpington residents bordering Kent face disruption from plans to use the nearby M26, connecting the M25 to the M20, as an additional queuing area for heavy goods vehicles backed up all the way from the channel ports.”
It was a measure of just what a low regard he had for the Withdrawal Agreement that he added that if forced to choose between it and “No Deal” he would plump for “No Deal” – though Johnson would much prefer a second referendum resulting in us staying in the EU.
Anyway, Kent County Council have produced some proposals to avoid any such disruption. Cllr Paul Carter, the Council’s Leader, stresses that they are for any contingency involving disruption from the ports – adjusting to Brexit being just one such scenario. Let us remember that we have had these problems before – in 2015 and 2016. Strikes at Calais, then a lack of French Border Police at Dover, caused thousands of lorries queuing for miles. What if there was a fire in the Channel Tunnel? What if the French went on strike again?
Cllr Carter says:
“We must never forget the chaos that we had across half of this county in 2015.
The M20 was closed in both directions – doctors couldn’t get to hospitals, domiciliary care workers struggled to reach their clients, weddings were cancelled.
The implementation of Operation Stack and the closure of the M20 cost the Kent economy around £1.45 million a day and the UK economy
an estimated £250 million per day – and that went on for three weeks.
Kent County Council has been working very closely with the Kent Resilience Forum and all partners to try to make sure that we have robust plans in place should there be disruption at the ports for any reason that keeps traffic from flowing across the county of Kent.”
The Council has “robust plans in place” should there be “disruption at the ports for any reason” to ensure “traffic keeps flowing across the county of Kent”.
But Cllr Carter would like some help from central Government:
“We now need far more input and information from national government in how they are going to work with us.
There must be a national freight transport plan which, when necessary, can hold lorries back from coming into Kent in the first place should the need arise. We now have holding areas to take more than 10-thousand lorries before it becomes necessary to use the M26 to hold freight, which is a situation that I want to avoid as far as we possibly can.
We need the right investment from the Department for Transport in the technology, number plate recognition and enforcement powers to stop lorries cutting and running down inappropriate highways and by-ways in Kent and directed to go where they’re told.
With national government’s cooperation, we can avoid the chaos that we saw in 2015.”
He wants £20 million from the Department for Transport to pay for the “necessary technology, barriers signage and vital preparation that we will need in Kent.”
Cllr Carter says that “£20 million is not a massive amount to the government in the scale of things”. I am not usually sympathetic to council leaders pleading poverty. But in this case, Cllr Carter, has a point, hasn’t he? If we proceed with a “no deal” (more properly a World Trade Organisation deal) then we will not be handing over £39 billion to the EU. Legal advice differs over whether we would owe anything at all under a “no deal”. Perhaps there will be a new Prime Minister who will suggest they “go whistle” for the dosh. Perhaps a more conciliatory approach will be taken. But any payment that was made would be much lower and spread over a much longer period.
The OBR estimates that if a deal was implemented we would be paying £7 billion a year for the next four years. For Cllr Carter to be asking for 0.05 per cent, that’s one twentieth of one per cent, of the £39 billion is pretty modest to “avoid the chaos of the past.”
The Institute of Economic Affairs in its assessment concludes that “substantial disruption” is “unlikely.” Firstly, it could be argued that non-tariff barriers “would be unnecessary, and even illegal under WTO rules, given that exports from both sides will still be made to the same standards immediately after the UK’s departure from the EU.” There are already some checks but draconian increases would not be required. Secondly “even French officials have stressed that it would be in their country’s own economic interests to minimise any additional delays. In particular, they have dismissed fears of a Calais ‘go-slow’ and suggested that as few as one per cent of UK lorries would be subject to a physical check.” Thirdly “put simply, neither the UK nor the EU has the physical infrastructure, or enough officials, to check every vehicle anyway, or even a significant proportion. In this respect at least, the lack of preparedness could actually be a blessing in disguise.”
Let’s hope the IEA is right. It still seems prudent to give Cllr Carter the £20 million.
Apart from the money, the Council also seeks clarification around Government decisions – for instance, regarding greater flexibility over driver hours (EU rules limit them to nine hours a day). It also wants more enforcement powers – in terms of directing traffic on or off particular roads in the event of gridlock being threatened. In practice, this might mean sending lorries to be parked at Manston Airport for a certain period of time to keep the M26 flowing. At present, the police can only redirect the traffic if there is an emergency – such as an accident. The request would be to be able to use this power for traffic management under extreme circumstances.
Other improvements, proposed by others, would take longer. Over two years ago on this site there was a plea from Charlie Elphicke, the MP for Dover and Deal, to improve customs technology and ports infrastructure. He also called for road improvements:
“The M20 needs to be upgraded, the A2 dualled and the Lower Thames Crossing taken forward with a sense of urgency.”
Cynical types might suspect an element of self-fulfilling prophecy about the lack of any such “sense of urgency” to make suitable preparations. The “Project Fear” proponents in The Treasury and Downing Street have blocked such measures and hope to then have the satisfaction of saying: “We told you so” – should difficulties materialise.
The good news about the proposals from Kent County Council is that there is still time to implement them. They seem to be modest, practical and soundly based on past experience. The Government should get on with providing the necessary backing.