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Liberal Democrats on Kent County Council

Brexit gridlock looms as Highways England ‘still testing’ solutions

March 15, 2018 8:30 PM

The Conservatives' promise to guarantee free-flowing trade and avoid almost permanent Operation Stack has been thrown into doubt after it was revealed that Highways England is 'still testing' traffic solutions with just 12 months to go.

Today Rob Bird, leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition on KCC, demanded assurance from the Conservative administration Rob Birdthat the county will not face gridlock should Brexit go ahead in March 2019.

But Mike Whiting, Cabinet Member for Planning, Highways, Transport & Waste, replied Highways England has so far proposed no solution, and is "still testing" measures to mitigate the worst of the chaos.

Rob Bird said: "Like so many post-Brexit promises, the guarantee of free-flowing trade and a county free of congestion is crumbling under the cold, hard reality of our situation.

"I fear the worst - with just 12 months to go, it's shocking that both the Government and Kent County Council are not better prepared should Brexit go ahead. Knowing Highways England is still in the testing phase is hardly reassuring, and there was no mention of the much-vaunted 'technological solutions' to keep trade flowing freely.

"Like everyone else in the county, I don't want to see a return to the summer of 2015 when lorries lined the M20, costing the Kent economy an eye-watering £1.45 million a day. But this is the reality we face if Conservatives at every level of government continue to bury their heads in the sand."

About 11,000 lorries pass through Dover every day and there is a real risk the county could face almost permanent Operation Stack if customs checks are imposed at the port.

In July 2015, Operation Stack gridlocked Kent for several weeks, with queues of lorries stretching more than 30 miles down the M20.

The cost of the disruption to the UK economy has been estimated by the Freight Transport Association at more than £250m. Kent Police also faced a hefty bill of more than £700,000 for managing the closures.

To put the risk into perspective, a lorry from within the EU typically takes two minutes to clear customs at Dover, while a lorry from outside the EU takes 20 minutes, according to evidence presented to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee.

Rob Bird's question to Mike Whiting, Cabinet Member for Planning, Highways, Transport & Waste:
"Brexit is intended to take place in just over 12 months' time. On 1st March the Secretary of State for Transport assured Parliament that '… it is absolutely the intent of this Government to maintain a free-flowing border …' at Dover and that the Government '… will have a solution in place for next March which keeps the M20 flowing in both directions and provides a solution if there is congestion at the ports...'.

Will the Cabinet Member provide the same assurances to the residents and businesses of Kent? In so doing, will he advise this Council what the technological solutions for maintaining a free-flowing border at Dover and free-flowing traffic through Kent will be, and what steps the Cabinet Member is taking to hold the Secretary of State to account?"

Mike Whiting's answer:
"I share your concerns Mr Bird. As you may know, Highways England has been tasked by Government to develop an interim solution to Operation Stack to be in place by March 2019 in time for Brexit. Highways England is developing a number of options that, while continuing to hold HGVs on the M20 in the event of delays at the ports, would also allow non-port traffic to continue to travel in both directions. Highways England is assessing different technologies ranging from steel barriers to moveable barrier systems, as well as the traffic management, including signing to get vehicles into the right lanes, that could be used to enable the safe separation of two-way flow from the queuing port traffic.

KCC is being consulted by Highways England on how these options could affect the local road network. I have already written to the Secretary of State insisting that the M20 must remain fully open for two-way traffic at all times enabling our residents and businesses to travel and there must be no impact on our local road network. I stressed to the Secretary of State that the County Council wants to avoid any repeat of the disruption in 2015 when Operation Stack was in place for 32 days at an estimated cost to the Kent economy of £1.45 million per day, and emphasised that maintaining traffic fluidity post-Brexit is a of paramount importance to Kent residents, businesses and the UK economy as a whole.

A final decision on which option to take forward will be made by Government early this year, with Highways England tasked to deliver by March 2019. The selected interim scheme could be announced alongside the public consultation on the options for a permanent solution to Operation Stack with a lorry park or parks, as the on-motorway scheme would only be temporary. KCC's response to this forthcoming consultation will be brought to the Environment and Transport Cabinet Committee at the appropriate time.

Currently the short-term contingency plan for Operation Stack is to use Manston Airport to park HGVs during severe disruption. Manston can hold approximately 4,000 lorries and would be implemented if Operation Stack Stages 1 and 2 (M20 junctions 8 to 11 coast-bound) becomes full, thus preventing the need to use the London-bound carriageway as was the case in the summer of 2015. Port of Dover lorries would be routed along the A249, M2 and A299 to Manston and then released along the A256 to Dover.

Thankfully Operation Stack has not been called since the summer of 2015, so Manston has yet to be used. The introduction of the Dover TAP scheme which queues HGVs along the inside lane of the A20 between Dover and Folkestone when there are delays at the Port of Dover has also helped prevent the need for Stack on several occasions."