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Freight lorries queue outside the Eurotunnel site in Folkestone, southeast England. Photo: AP

Has Brexit met its portaloo? UK faces ‘lorry jam’ border pressures

  • Customs checks could cause long delays for freight lorries at UK border
  • UK and EU in final stages of negotiating post-Brexit trade arrangements

The southern English county of Kent, with its sweeping views over the English Channel to France, was once known as the garden of England because of its thriving horticulture trade.

But with just over four weeks until the UK leaves the EU’s single market and customs union, people living in the heavily-Brexit voting district can expect to see long lines of lorries and portable toilets for drivers held up by new border controls.

Peers in the House of Lords on Monday heard the government was still weighing how to organise portable toilets along the hard shoulder of the main motorways out of Kent for drivers stuck in expected queues. The concern is when the traffic is free flowing, lorry drivers making a quick dash could cause an accident. Instead, portaloos as they are commonly known, will probably only be installed in a times of severe lorry jams.

Whether EU and UK negotiators manage to reach an agreement on post-Brexit trade arrangements over the next few days, or if the UK exits the trade bloc with no deal, traffic management in Kent due to customs chaos is at the forefront of Brexit planners’ minds.

The UK government expects that in the worst scenario, 40 to 70 per cent of lorries will not have the correct papers with them when they arrive in Calais from Dover the beginning of January.

Although the UK government plans to introduce customs controls in stages over a period of six months to enable the new system to come into force, the EU plans to immediately begin customs checks.

Lorries queue at the port of Dover on the south coast of England. File photo: AFP

Given the sheer volume of traffic, delays in Calais will quickly cause queues of lorries on the English side of the channel.

On Monday, the UK parliament voted that only lorry drivers who have completed all the correct forms would be able to enter the county of Kent on their way to Dover or the Eurotunnel at Folkestone.

A huge lorry park, capable of taking up to 1,700 lorries is being built outside the Kent hub of Ashford. Nicknamed the “Farage Garage” after the Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, the 27-acre site will be the largest of four across the county. The idea is that lorries will wait here up to a day while drivers have papers checked by customs officers.

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There was also the issue of whether many EU-based lorries would even come. Only 15 per cent of the UK’s haulage industry is carried out by British companies and drivers, the vast majority of the trade carried out by Eastern European operators.

“We are certainly seeing a reluctance from EU-based haulers to come to the UK in January already,” Duncan Buchanan. Policy Director at The Road Haulage Association told the Lords subcommittee on EU goods.

Construction work at the site of a lorry park, near Ashford in Kent, southeast England. Photo: AFP

“It’s going to be a problem If you have the choice of serving other markets or a very compacted problematic congested market with unreliable journey times … then you are very much going to avoid coming here in the first place.”

“As we sit here today, not one UK haulier knows if they are going to be able to operate in and out of the EU in 2021,” he added.

One of the ironies of Brexit is that the decision to leave the EU was meant to free the country from Brussels red tape. UK freight forwarders estimate that the number of import and export documents they will have to complete annually will rise from 5 million to 400 million after Brexit, costing billions of pounds.

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According to the Institute for Government, a staggering 37 government departments will be responsible for enforcing the new customs and trade border on the British side.

The UK Court of Auditors warned early this month that the technology for the new regime had not been properly tested, a procedure slowed down by the coronavirus pandemic.

As a result, “there will be significant disturbance at the border from 1 January 2021,” the court warned. The software system that will be required for food imports for example, was not expected to be up and running for another month.

Virtual talks were continuing this week between EU and UK negotiators with the main sticking points towards a deal rules on state aid, fishing rights and how to police the new trading arrangements. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was expected to talk to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen later this week.

The new governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey said failure to reach an agreement would have a bigger impact on the UK economy that the coronavirus pandemic.

The comments of the Conservative Party official directly contradicted those of the UK finance minister Rishi Sunak, who claimed the reverse was true and that Britain should not accept a deal at any price.