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'Too little too late': Hauliers slam no-deal Brexit rehearsal as 'window dressing'

‘Operation Brock’ began this morning with trucks travelling from a regional airport in Kent to the port of Dover.

Updated Jan 7th 2019, 6:35 PM

Brexit The trial of a government plan to hold lorries in the event of post-Brexit disruption at the former Manston Airport site Source: PA Wire/PA Images

DOZENS OF TRUCKS took part in a UK government exercise for coping with possible Channel gridlock caused by a no-deal Brexit, assembling on a disused airport runway that could be turned into a giant lorry park.

But haulage groups labelled the exercise “too little too late” and “window dressing”, while a local MP said the plan was “too complex” and would create “enormous confusion” for lorry drivers.

Nearly 100 lorries descended on Manston airfield in southeast England, which has been identified as a possible holding facility under contingency plans for leaving the European Union without a divorce agreement on 29 March.

As part of the test, the vehicles then made two trips in convoy to and from the port of Dover — A 32 kilometre journey — along a route far less used by trucks than the main highway from London.

“Today’s trial cannot possibly duplicate the reality of 4,000 trucks being held at Manston airport in the event of a no-deal Brexit,” said Richard Burnett, head of the Road Haulage Association (RHA).

“It’s too little too late — this process should have started nine months ago. At this late stage it looks like window dressing,” he added.

The RHA are among the industry bodies advising the transport ministry and local officials ahead of Brexit, and helped attract truckers to the one-day trial.

A ministry spokeswoman said 89 trucks participated at a cost of £550 (€610) per driver, or £48,950 for the whole fleet.

“We do not want or expect a no-deal scenario and continue to work hard to deliver a deal with the EU.

“However, it is the duty of a responsible government to continue to prepare for all eventualities and contingencies, including a possible no deal,” she said.

Toby Howe, senior highway manager at Kent County Council, told AFP the government was considering holding up to 6,000 lorries at Manston, “if necessary”.

Howe said the aim of the exercise was to work out how quickly the trucks could leave the airport and how long it would take them to arrive in Dover.

‘Least worst option’

But Charlie Elphicke, the local Conservative MP for Dover, criticised the plan as “too complex” and residents have voiced concern about traffic jams. 

Dover handles some 10,000 heavy goods vehicles every day and there are concerns that increased checks on the border will create congestion on roads in the county of Kent.

It currently takes only two minutes for a truck to complete the formalities.

A mere two-minute addition would cause jams of more than 17 miles (27 kilometres) in Dover and similar chaos in Calais and Dunkirk, the Port of Dover warned on its website.

The Freight Transport Association, which also liaised with hauliers for the trial, said avoiding a no-deal Brexit was of “vital importance”.  

“Using Manston can never be a ‘good’ arrangement,just a part of the least worst option in the event of the ongoing disruption at Dover that no deal… would cause,” it added in a statement.

Meanwhile at the nearby port of Ramsgate, dredging is under way to prepare the harbour for use in case of delays at Dover after 29 March.

A solitary dredger was at work in the harbour on Monday, piling up spoil on the dockside.

The truck park stood empty, unused for several years.

“It’s a bit of a fiasco,” said Ramsgate resident Peter Elston, 63, a retired train driver walking his dog along the cliffs overlooking the port.

“It’s much too late. I can’t see it happening by the end of March, I can’t see it working but it would be brilliant if it did.”

Peadar Kelly, 47, a cab driver, said he had mixed views as the port would bring jobs and investment but change the quality of life.

He said Ramsgate felt quiet “like the end of the universe”, whereas Dover had become “a passing-through area.”

Katie, 30, said: “They thought they’d definitely get a deal and didn’t need to do preparations and now they realise they have to do something.

“It’s all so chaotic.”

Meanwhile, Parliament returned from its Christmas break this morning to debate and – most likely – defeat Prime Minister Theresa May’s unpopular EU divorce deal.

May and the other 27 EU leaders agreed on a draft in November designed to keep the process as orderly and undamaging as possible.

Brexit Manston Airport in Kent. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

It took nearly two years to negotiate and has managed to upset just about everyone in British politics.

May survived her party’s resulting no-confidence motion but was forced to abort a December vote on the pact after admitting it would lose by a “significant margin”.

There are few signs that much has changed since.

May returned empty-handed from a subsequent EU summit she had hoped could address the concerns of her disgruntled Northern Irish coalition partners.

Vote to go ahead

Brexit-backing MPs in her Conservative party are still in revolt while opposition Labour leaders are angling for new elections.

May insisted yesterday that the vote will go ahead as planned on or around 15 January.

The formal debate kicks off in parliament on Wednesday.

But she also warned the deal’s defeat would put Britain “in unchartered territory (in which) I don’t think anybody can say exactly what will happen”.

London has been swirling with rumours about how exactly May intends to avoid Britain crashing out of the bloc without any trade or other arrangements in place.

One idea mentioned by advisers involves the government simply re-introducing more or less the same version of the draft over and over again.

May refused to rule out the possibility of a second or third vote in parliament when pressed about it in a BBC interview yesterday.

Other reports said she intends to invite her party’s most vocal opponents over for private drinks today and Wednesday.

The arm-twisting will be accompanied by a new government campaign designed to prepare Britons for the full impact of a disruptive no-deal scenario.

But Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said reports that he and other EU sceptics could be persuaded by May’s arguments about a calamitous no-deal Brexit were “wishful thinking”.

Most Conservatives either “think that these fears are exaggerated or that (it) is a price worth paying for leaving the shackles of the European Union,” he wrote in the Sunday Express.

Involving parliament

May outlined a formal plan of action yesterday that included the possibility of giving parliament a bigger say in a new round of trade talks with Brussels that begins once Brexit enters into force.

These “future relationship” negotiations will also try to resolve the prickly issue of keeping the Irish border open while preserving the integrity of the EU.

The temporary solution laid out in the draft withdrawal agreement does not suit Northern Ireland’s tiny Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that props up May’s government.

“There’s a number of ways which we’re looking to see how we can involve parliament in a greater way in the future,” May told the BBC.

She also promised to continue to seek “further assurances from the European Union” about the border issue ahead of next week’s vote.

The DUP wants a binding guarantee from Brussels that Northern Ireland’s trade with the rest of Britain will not be subjected to any types of checks.

May spent part of her holidays ringing up EU leaders about possible concessions. Brussels has made clear it will cede nothing before the vote.

© AFP 2019  

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