‘I think it’s going to be a nightmare’: Local fears about impact of Brexit lorry parks come early as border chaos reigns

People in Ebbsfleet and Warrington are worried by the development of inland border facilities on their doorstep. They tell Rory Sullivan about their concerns 

Rory Sullivan
Wednesday 23 December 2020 00:19 GMT
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A view of St Mary’s Church and the construction work at the neighbouring Sevington inland border facility in Ashford, Kent on 6 November, 2020.
A view of St Mary’s Church and the construction work at the neighbouring Sevington inland border facility in Ashford, Kent on 6 November, 2020. (PA)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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The Brexit transition period finishes in little over a week, and the UK is still wracked by deep uncertainty about what next year will bring.

As negotiations with the European Union grind on and time slips by, the risks of a no-deal Brexit loom ever greater, and one of the big unknowns is what will happen at the UK’s borders from 1 January.

And Britain has been given a taste this week of what the future might hold if those fears are realised, as thousands of lorries were held in Kent by Tuesday as a result of France’s decision to close its border to accompanied freight from the UK, following the spread of the new Covid-19 strain. 

Amid concerns of similar HGV queues stretching for miles after the transition period, the government gave itself permission earlier this year to build 29 lorry parks across the UK to reduce these potential burdens.

Of these projects, only seven inland border facilities (IBFs) will be operational by 1 January, according to a government website, the majority of which are in Kent.

Communities living close to some of these temporary facilities, which could be in place for up to five years, have told The Independent about the adverse impacts they fear the sites will have, including rising pollution levels and gridlock caused by inadequate road infrastructure.

Steve Fensom, who lives in the village of Appleton Thorn in Warrington, where one IBF is being built at a former coach station, is among those who feel that local voices are going unheard.

Mr Fensom, a member of the apolitical Stretton and Appleton Thorn Liaison Group, which seeks to act as an intermediary between the HMRC and the local community, is pragmatic about the situation.

“This [the site] is going to happen. We have to live with it. We just need to understand what mitigations can be put in place,” he said.

“But sadly as of today, with less than a month to go until the start of operations, HMRC have not talked to anybody as such.”

A former bus station is being turned into an inland border facility at Appleton Thorn, Cheshire, on 17 November, 2020.  
A former bus station is being turned into an inland border facility at Appleton Thorn, Cheshire, on 17 November, 2020.   (Getty Images)

As a result, the villagers have many unanswered questions. For example, although locals know that the customs facility on the edge of Appleton Thorn will operate 24/7, they are unsure of the exact number of lorries that will arrive there each day.  

One estimate puts the figure as high as 1,656 different vehicles, assuming each of the site’s 69 bays are full and there is a turnaround time of one hour per driver.

Even if this suggestion proves wide of the mark, the increase in traffic will be considerable. “There are going to be up to a million more HGVs trips from the motorway to somewhere next to our village and back. Some of them will end up going through our village,” says Mr Fensom.

Ultimately, the actual figure will depend on the level of spill-over from customs checks in Holyhead, Wales, where an IBF is planned to open in the second half of 2021.

Sharon Harris, a Liberal Democrat borough councillor for the Appleton ward, has spoken to HMRC representatives, who she says “were listening and were trying to do their best”. Nevertheless, she believes the whole process has been rushed and that parishioners have legitimate concerns that have not been adequately tackled so far.

She is worried by the IBF’s effect on pollution levels, noting that Warrington is already one of the most heavily polluted cities in the UK. The level of particulates belched into the air by these HGVS could have “a fairly immediate” effect on the residents’ health, she says.

“If I’m honest, I don’t think the government has a handle on it. I don’t think it knows what to expect," Ms Harris added.

Elsewhere, Kent, the so-called “Garden of England”, will be home to four of the seven IBFs which planners hope will be ready in time for January. One of these sites will be at the former long-stay car park at Ebbsfleet International train station, used as a coronavirus testing centre until its recent closure.

Tony Lee, a writer who moved into the nearby Castle Hill Estate roughly five years ago, was drawn to the area because it had been designated as a “garden city” by the government in 2014. “We came here because it was a garden city and everyone talked about how there was going to be healthy living, with sustainable green energy," Mr Lee explains.

Referring to a model of the local area on display at Ebbsfleet International, he adds: “You see a massive parkland, you see a community centre, a doctor’s and things like that. This is the lie that we were sold when we moved in.”

A Covid-19 test centre in the car park at Ebbsfleet International train station is pictured in April 2020, before it was closed to make way for a Brexit lorry park. 
A Covid-19 test centre in the car park at Ebbsfleet International train station is pictured in April 2020, before it was closed to make way for a Brexit lorry park.  (AFP via Getty Images)

Sacha Gosine, a Labour councillor for Ebbsfleet ward, is also concerned by the development at the site, suggesting that the already overburdened local road systems will struggle to accommodate additional vehicles.

The councillor predicts there will be traffic “mayhem” for Ebbsfleet, Dartford and Gravesend from 1 January, adding: “I think it’s going to be a nightmare.”

Mr Gosine also alleges that the government’s two-week consultation period for local residents was just a “talking exercise to placate us”, with jobs at the site already being advertised online before the process began.

Like those in Warrington and Ebbsfleet, the community in Sevington on the outskirts of Ashford, Kent, where a 1,700-capacity lorry park and a customs site are being built, believes that jobs at IBFs will not be going to local people.

“It would be good to see an advert up in Ashford. People were hoping that jobs would be advertised locally,” says Sharon Swandale, who lives in Sevington and is part of the Village Alliance, a group that seeks to inform residents about nearby planning developments.

However, Ms Swandale is keen to point out that the government has provided residents with updates, including a decision to increase construction work to 24 hours a day six days a week. It has also built a near motorway junction on the M20, which will service the Sevington site.

She adds that the government agreed to a request from the Village Alliance to keep some hedgerows on the boundary of the Sevington IBF. Ms Swandale also expresses optimism that ministers will heed calls to prevent developments on another government-owned field across the road.

This is all a marked improvement from the previous development originally planned by a private company on the same fields, notes Ms Swandale.

One problem, however, is that the Sevington site will not be fully operational by the start of January, with the Department for Transport blaming rain for the delay in construction. 

Addressing the concerns raised by communities about IBFs, a government spokesperson toldThe Independent earlier this month that the “necessary infrastructure” would be in place by the end of the transition period, and claimed it had “consulted with local residents at every stage of the planning process” and had published “detailed plans” online.

However, the sense of uncertainty over Brexit has by no means dissipated. “We don’t have clarity on the rules of the game at each of these sites,” says Duncan Buchanan, a spokesperson for the Road Haulage Association,in early December. 

Only time will tell whether cabinet minister Michael Gove, who has played a large role in the Brexit negotiations, will regret the words he uttered about customs arrangements in early October. Misquoting a British singer, he said: “If things do go wrong, then to paraphrase Rag’n’Bone Man – put the blame on me.” 

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