The Effect of Brexit on Kent
As Brexit approaches, socialist from Kent, Ralph Tebbutt, asks what are the important issues for the county which contains the Channel Tunnel
Many issues surround Britain leaving the European Union, not least the question of where the boundary between Great Britain and Ireland should be. However, many people in Kent believe that the most serious questions are here, in the County of Kent. Kent is in many ways a gateway into Europe. The Port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone are extremely busy and important links to the Continent. Therefore a great deal of thought, anguish and planning has been concerned with this. Even at the best of times, any disruption at the Port or the tunnel leads to chaos on the roads leading to these two venues. It has to be appreciated that the main routes through Kent are the M2/A2 and the M20/A20 major roadways. When travel disruption arises at these two crossing points special measures have to be put in place. These often involve closing parts of the M20 and putting into action Operation Stack - which involves lorries being park along the closed of section of the M20 motorway.
Planning by Kent County Council has considered the potential disruption and delays at the ports and prepared a plan ‘Operation Block’ to deal with these possibilities. The plan envisages holding up to 12,000 lories and keeping all Kent roads open at all times. The Council Report glibly states that “should the 12,000 capacity be exceeded, the plan necessitates HGVs bound for Europe to be held outside of the County”. Operation Block involves the use of the M20, Manston Airport, local roads, and ultimately the closure of the M26 as a last resort.
Part of the planning process has involved the possibility of turning around non-compliant vehicles. The relevant authorities need to have the power to direct freight vehicles to the appropriate temporary holding areas. They also need the power to enforce compliance. A checkpoint process will apply to facilitate freight fluidity on Kent road network. Highway officers and police will be drawn in from other parts of the Country as required. Drivers of heavy commercial vehicles will be required to produce documents relating to the vehicle’s journey and goods that are to be exported. Traffic officers will be able to direct traffic to only use certain roads, and to levy a fine of £300 for non-compliance. HGV drivers will be issued with a permit to proceed to specific checkpoints. Without the permit, a driver could be turned round and escorted by police to a predetermined holding area where the necessary documentation can be obtained.
The possibility (should that be probability?) that there will be problems regarding transport and a serious danger of congestion will not only affect the major trunk roads. It is extremely likely that the problems will spill out to the Towns and Villages of the County. Kent has many idyllic villages, it is part of its enduring charm. These villages and their associated road networks were not designed to cope with heavy traffic. Residents in these villages are fearful of the carry over effect of heavy lorries seeking to avoid the congestion on the major roads and finding themselves lost on the narrow country lanes and in their charming villages. A secondary concern that people have, is that toilet provision is inadequate and that the lanes may become extended toilet areas!
The transport problem is not only connected with freight. Passengers wishing to travel to and from the Continent will also be affected. As with freight, what was previously quite simple and straightforward, will now become fraught, with passport checks and the like. Among other issues that have to be considered are passenger welfare issues.
A further problem that will arise is custom checks. Whereas previously traffic could pass freely between the UK and Europe, after the 31 December, this will no longer be true. Whatever the final outcome of negotiations, increased checks will have to be made. There will be a great need to fund, recruit and train a significant number of new customs officers. To what extent this has been done is uncertain. The Kent County Council Report, dated 12 September 2020, states that the 'Kent Resilience Forum' has received additional funding from Government to ensure that Kent has the infrastructure and plans to deal with a no-deal Brexit. Kent County Council has urged the Government to situate Custom Stations predominantly outside Kent. This would minimise disruption on Kent roads and the necessity of turning around vehicles without customs paperwork and having to direct them to customs stations in Kent. It is this possibility that has led to some suggestions that a border is to be created between Kent and the rest of Great Britain (a proposal welcomed by those who dream of an independent kingdom of Kent!)
As with all areas of the UK it will be important that businesses are prepared to meet the new situation arising from Brexit. Kent county is setting up communication structures to ensure that all agencies, and Kent’s communities, businesses and hauliers, are kept informed of any potential disruption on the roads or at the ports. This involves 40 communication teams across Kent. Trading Standards is another issue of concern. Post Brexit checks on high-risk foods and animal feed destined for the UK but landing first in other EU countries may not be checked for safety by the EU. Provision will have to be made for such tests. Some provisional, limited arrangements have been agreed by the Food Standards Agency. A no-deal scenario could disrupt Kent Scientific Services supply of chemicals and consumables manufactured in the EU. A further consideration is the supply of essential provisions to Kent Schools, including, in some cases, school meals.
The Report to Kent County Council details the funding that has been received from Government and the political and service, in particular, with France and Belgium. The full Report can be found here.
Despite all the disagreements over Brexit, there is one thing on which the French and the British Governments are united, their response to refugees. Both Governments are determined to make the conditions of refugees as difficult and as harassing as possible. This despite the fact that many of the people seeking to reach Britain have relatives in Britain and many, particularly young people, have an absolute right to come to Britain. Many make the dangerous passage across the channel in spite of the efforts of both UK and EU. The worry is how many try but fail without anyone being aware. There are several Groups in Kent, including Kent Refugee Action Network, Stand Up To Racism and others, that are active in support of refugees. A major event is planned to support refugees and oppose racism and fascism.
What ever the outcome of the negotiations around Brexit, it will bring further pressures on the working class, here in Kent as elsewhere. This year began with the working class facing the pressures arising from the financial crisis and the Climate crisis. The advent of Covid has added greatly to these pressures. There can be no doubt that the Government and their supporters intend to make the working class pay for the economic and the Covid crises. Brexit adds a further dimension to this situation.
Politically the left is weak in Kent. The Conservative Party dominates the County Council, and indeed the more working class unitary authority of Medway. As far as I am aware, the Labour Party is locked in bureaucratic arguments. The main opposition to what is happening comes from the groups mentioned above, the Trades Councils, particularly the Medway Trades Union Council, the small group within the Socialist Workers Party and other left wing parties. In the New Year the 'Kent People Before Profit' will be formally launched. This is a vehicle that can be used to unite all those groups and individuals who seek a major transformation of society that will enable all to live happy and comfortable lives. The task is enormous but the situation is dire. Our strength and potential lies in our unity.