Richard North, 11/07/2020  

There is far more to the news that a vast Brexit customs clearance centre is to be built in Kent. The very fact that it has been done so fast and with such secrecy must tell a story.

Of course, the exact nature of that story is far from clear. In twenty years' time, perhaps, diligent researchers will be trawling through recently released official records to find out the backstory on what will then be a tiny bit of history.

From this side of the divide, however, the move looks distinctly like panic - the Downing Street Muppets having just realised the implications of what they've been doing, and the consequences of the no-deal direction in which they've been heading.

All the same, the government's action really is quite extraordinary. It has secretly purchased a 27 acre site bearing the unlikely name of 'Mojo'. The location is close to Ashford, 20 miles from Dover. The plan, apparently, is to use 1.2 million square feet as a customs clearance centre for the 10,000 or so lorries that come through the Kent port every day.

So rapid has been this move that the local authority was given only hours' notice of what, it seems, was an emergency purchase. After being told yesterday afternoon, the council leader was forced to rush out hand-delivered letters to local residents to warn them of the disruption.

In the grander scheme of things, it will be the first time a customs post has been needed by the British government to deal with goods from the EU since the Single Market was established in 1992. Fencing work will start on Monday, together with grass and weed vegetation cutting, extensive survey work, the constructing of a temporary site office, and the constructing of temporary access from the A2070 link road.

Bowing to the inevitable, the choice of the site makes absolute sense. There is no room within the confines of Dover Port to carry out customs checks, and there is already a precedent for off-site processing.

We already have, since 2012, a purpose-built facility at the 'Stop24' Folkestone Services at Junction 11 on the M20. Equipped to process third country imports, it is a mere five minutes' drive from the Channel Tunnel and 15 minutes from the port at Dover.

In fact, inland ports are a normal part of the Customs system, taking the pressure off the maritime ports and airports. Thus, if 'Mojo' is to be used, then it will acquire the status of an inland port, for which there are well-rehearsed procedures.

Nevertheless, the government's plans, or so it says, have not yet been finalised for the use of this site. Apart from providing facilities for border-related controls, there will also be holding space for HGVs to prevent Dover being overwhelmed in the event of disruption.

Thus, the story is not the fact of the provision, but the suddenness of the decision to go ahead. Had the government been on the ball, one would imagine that it would have been making these arrangements many months ago, and would not be having to work at such speed or in such secrecy.

One wonders, therefore, whether the government had even realised until now what their current stance on the negotiations entailed. But it also suggests that the government has reconciled itself to the reality of leaving the Single Market, and has finally understood that border controls are the new normal.

Now this is out in the open, it seems that we are to get more detail this weekend, with Michael Gove preparing to tour TV studios to publicise a multi-million-pound Get Ready for Brexit campaign – somewhat inappropriate, since we have already left.

For the first time, it looks as if businesses are to be given the full details of what they should expect once the transition period ends. They will have access to a 90-page document, currently in draft, which sets out the new arrangements.

Entitled, 'The Border with the European Union, Importing and Exporting Goods', it apparently 'lays bare' the complicated new paperwork facing all businesses from 1 January, whether there is a deal or not.

But it also emerges that the 'Mojo' site is to be only the first of a series of new inland customs clearance centres and border control posts. Others are to be built to alleviate congestion at sites including Portsmouth and Holyhead. In time, we might expect most traffic to be processed through such inland centres.

As it stands, though, the arrangements being publicised cover those which will apply whether we have a deal or not. If, as expected, the UK does leave without a deal, then additional measures will have to be specified. These have yet to be revealed. Largely, they won't even be known until the last days of the transition period, towards the end of December.

But, in that case, there will have to be a further information campaign by the government. Then, the true effects of the government's actions will hit home. The impact on public sentiment will be interesting to observe. Business leaders, however, are undoubtedly watching the current EU moves to establish a €5 billion 'crisis fund' to compensate some of those who lose out from Brexit.

The Commission has acknowledged that the effects of the Covid pandemic have weakened national economies to such a state that they will be less able to withstand Brexit shocks, and will thus need help.

With the precedent set by Covid-19 compensation, the UK government is going to find it very hard to resist similar calls for payments to those businesses which suffer losses. If the principle is conceded, that £350 million a week sum, which so famously adorned the side of a big red bus, is going to be stretched to breaking point.

The big problem for the government – and everybody else – is that the ongoing costs of Brexit are almost impossible to estimate. But gone are the heady days when we were hearing optimistic chirping about how much better off the UK would be.

By now, only a few diehards refuse to accept that this government's version of Brexit will cost us dear. Only the amount is in dispute, ranging from very large to huge.

The worst of it all, though, is that no one can see an end to this. Spending on Covid issues is still multiplying and, unless the Chancellor has discovered a magic money tree, or reinvented the rules of economics, excess government borrowing will eventually be translated into additional taxes and spending cuts. Add Brexit to that, and things begin to look pretty dismal.

But that is yet to come. For the moment, as a nation we are just starting to confront the practical realities of Brexit. Since 2016, the "conversation" has been largely theoretical, with many of the pundits away with the fayries.

More recently we have seen even the likes of Liz Truss writing to Gove expressing her concern over the lack of preparedness which could (and probably will) leave the UK "vulnerable" to smuggling and to a legal challenge by the World Trade Organisation.

Such issues themselves have direct cost implications, but there are also reputational effects which will have indirect impacts. In the eyes of many, Britain will no longer be a good place to do business.

Just for once, it would actually be nice to have something optimistic about which we could write, but short of the outright fantasy which seems to dominate the prime minister's thinking, we don't seem to have much going for us – especially as we have just discovered another meaning for 'Mojo'.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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