On 3 September the government announced the introduction of Statutory Instrument 928, giving the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government the power to override local planning regulations and start the construction of holding lorry parks in 29 named authorities. This is part of the preparation for expected delays at ports caused by the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.
A surprise inclusion on the list was East Sussex. And the existence of the international freight port at Newhaven is the obvious reason for East Sussex appearing on the list. While local residents and councillors have reacted in horror at the prospect of a giant truck park being built at the port, the Conservative MP for Lewes, Maria Caulfield, has insisted to Sussex Bylines and elsewhere that there are no plans to construct a holding area. She has accused those who have voiced their concerns of “scaremongering” and has said that Newhaven is installing customs checks which will be ready by December.
Government unready for Brexit
A source with knowledge of the current situation at the port believes this is unlikely. There are two customs declaration processing systems running in parallel at the moment, with plans for the existing system, CHIEF, to be replaced by a new and more extensive CDS. The Goods Vehicle Movement Service (GVMS) app is under development and not expected to be ready before mid-2021. It is intended, when up and running, to link customs declaration references together so that the person moving goods only needs to present one reference at the frontier to prove that their goods have pre-lodged declarations.
In the meantime, so our source warns, there is a real risk of the current system falling over under the pressure of additional usage. And the Chief Executive of the Road Haulage Association, along with others in the freight and cold storage sectors, has accused the government of “sleepwalking into disaster” as a consequence of its lack of readiness for the end of the transition period.
The government has made achingly slow progress in planning for a no-deal or hard Brexit, and many businesses are still ill-prepared for the new customs regime. It was estimated in 2019 that up to 85% of cargo trucks bound for France would not be ready for French customs, leading to tailbacks and delays at major ports like Dover of up to two and a half days. Delayed trucks need somewhere to park up while the correct customs forms are processed. Hence the construction of the massive lorry holding facility on the outskirts of Ashford.
From 1 January 2021, the EU will treat the UK as a third country and insist on detailed customs declarations, including sanitary and phytosanitary checks, goods compliance, and much more. If a lorry driver is unable to provide the necessary paperwork at the exit port (Newhaven) they risk being refused boarding by DFDS, the ferry operating company. Remember that 85% figure?
Congestion and environmental disaster
The implications of all this for the areas around Newhaven are deeply concerning. The local road network has been described by East Sussex County Council as “fragile”. The A259 coast road is severely congested at rush hour and the A26 is winding and single-lane. Trucks heading for the port already park up on lay-bys along the A26 road to Newhaven for obligatory rest time. Current parking facilities at the port are limited. With an average of 60 lorries crossing daily from Newhaven to Dieppe – 150 in the summer – delays could mean extensive tailbacks into town, and drivers trying to find parking space in the surrounding rural roads, hamlets and villages while they attempt to sort out their paperwork.
One solution is to build a holding facility at the port. While Caulfield insists that there are presently no plans to construct one, she does concede that East Sussex is included on the SDO list in case a lorry park “should ever be needed in the future”.
There are only a few possible sites for a park – a prime candidate is on the east side of Newhaven port, using the newly-built access road over the railway, encroaching yet further into the East Beach and Tide Mills nature reserve and historic site, both of which have already suffered from the extension of heavy industries at the edge of the port.
This whole area has a special place in the hearts of Seaford and Newhaven locals. They treasure the walks through the ruined village of Tide Mills, swimming from the sandy beach at low tide, and the rare plants and animals that live in the mixed habitats of mud flats and shingle banks.
In the words of the Joni Mitchell song:
“…You don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone,
They paved paradise,
Put up a parking lot”.
Perhaps not quite a paradise, but a deeply loved landscape. Will a paved parking lot come to inflict yet more damage on this special site? Only time – and the government – can tell.