Many of us remember summer 2015 as the summer of Operation Stack. The M20 turned into a giant lorry park and local roads ground to a standstill. Deliveries ran late, appointments were missed, journeys to school or work took hours instead of minutes, and businesses lost thousands of pounds. The cause was an unprecedented combination of striking ferry workers and migrants attempting to get to the UK.
Next year we will have another unprecedented event. On 29 March, the UK is leaving the European Union. I hope we’ll reach an agreement with the EU which will avoid onerous customs checks. The signs so far are positive, with the terms of our withdrawal broadly agreed and negotiations on the transition proceeding well. Barriers to trade are neither in our interest nor the EU’s, and we’re starting from a point of shared regulations. That said, there’s a long way to go. We need to be ready for a less favourable outcome.
That’s why a group of Kent MPs recently met the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, together with the head of Highways England. We need to be sure that Kent’s roads are ready for Brexit.
We have the £250m commitment for a lorry holding area which Kent MPs won from the Government in 2015, but that won’t be ready for spring next year. Instead, we need better temporary options. I have insisted that the M20 must be kept flowing in both directions. With that in mind, Highways England have come up with a plan to use the hard shoulder and gaps in the central barriers – providing capacity for 3,000 queuing lorries and two-way flow of traffic. This summer, work will be carried out to harden the hard shoulder in preparation.
Meanwhile, work needs to continue on a longer term system for managing delays. We can expect a consultation on this later in the year.
With 5,000 lorries arriving in Kent every day from mainland Europe, and another 5,000 leaving, delays at the border will quickly lead to queues forming on both sides of the channel. It’s in the EU’s interest to avoid that, just as it’s in ours – but in any event, we need to be prepared.