Richard North, 24/09/2020  

I'm a little puzzled as to why the Kent permits should suddenly be such a story right now, when it was covered in early August after the publication of a Government consultation.

The time to have made a big thing of this, surely, should have been then, when the consultation was open, thus sponsoring the sort of debate that should be part of our democracy. Since the consultation finished on 23 August, it's a little late to turn this into a rampant media controversy. The permit system is a done deal.

Furthermore, it is a little perverse that the media are only just now coming to terms with the idea of a permit system to control the flow of trucks to the Channel ports, and especially to Dover.

I was, after all, writing about the very real possibly of queues as early as December 2016 and I raised the possibility of permits in March 2017. In February 2017, I was back on the trail, writing about the concerns of the Road Haulage Association, and their warning that customs problems could cripple supply chains.

Then, in March 2017, we saw something of a misstep by Barnier, warning – amongst other things – of truck queues at Dover if Brexit talks failed. Interestingly, he was talking in terms of a "bold and ambitious free-trade agreement", but even then he was insisting on "a level playing field" on tax, labour law and consumer rights.

This was picked up by Deutsche Welle and I noted it on the blog, and it is possible that the rhetoric about the importance of a deal misled people. However, I was back on the beat in June 2018 and once more two weeks later, yet again considering the possibility of a permit system and a mechanism for controlling traffic flows.

This is not to claim any great perspicacity on my part as it always seemed to me pretty clear that, with or without a trade deal, our departure from the Single Market and Customs Union meant that border controls would apply to UK traffic seeking access to EU Member State ports.

Sadly, this doesn't seem to have been as obvious to other players, such as the Guardian. Back in June 2018, it was bleating about "gridlock" at Dover Port, in the absence of a suitable trade deal.

The paper at the time was quoting Richard Christian, the port’s head of policy, who was warning about massive disruption to freight traffic on ferries and Eurotunnel services, in the event of a hard Brexit, thus calling for a Brexit deal involving frictionless trade.

What was not being made clear at the time was that there would be severe disruption, whatever type of deal was agreed. And, given that for PR reasons alone, the government could not allow pictures of massive queues outside Dover, it was only a matter of time before we saw measures being considered to avoid that eventuality.

But what was seriously disturbing at the time were the reports that the preparations by the government to make Dover ready for Brexit were "woefully inadequate". More than two years down the line, with the end of the transition period only months away, and it is still the case that preparations are "woefully inadequate".

And yet, even by December 2018, the narrative in certain quarters was firmly fixated on the effects of a "no-deal", with the idea that even if there was disruption to vehicle traffic, it would only be "temporary". The idea that it would become a permanent fixture simply wasn't accepted.

Somewhere, though, it seems that reality began to take a hold. In July 2019, I had another report, this one picking up on an article in the Telegraph, which told of an agreement between the Port of Calais and Channel shipping lines, which meant that trucks without the correct paperwork would not be allowed to board ferries.

This scenario had Dover being used as a "filter" for traffic headed for the mainland. But that left the obvious possibility of massive tailbacks and disruption this side of the Channel. Vehicles without the necessary paperwork would be intercepted and stacked at Manston airfield as part of Operation Brock – provisions which, even then, were known to be insufficient.

A month later, though, we saw Sky News telling us that hauliers would face increased fines and civilian traffic officers will be granted new powers in the event of a no-deal Brexit under government plans to try and avoid debilitating customs delays at Dover.

Proposals had been set out in a Department of Transport consultation, which would see Highways England Traffic Officers (TOs) given the power to demand and check drivers' documentation for the first time. These TOs would also work with police to levy new increased fines, perhaps as high as £300, on drivers who ignored orders to take an alternative route or head to holding areas.

What was interesting here, though, was that the controls were still being placed in the context of a "no-deal" Brexit, allowing for the assumption that things could somehow be better if we had a deal.

July of this year, of course, saw the "Mojo" story, with the start of the programme of building extra lorry parks to take the overflow traffic. At last, it seemed, the government was beginning to take the problem seriously. That didn't stop me writing, though, about the government being asleep at the wheel.

But if the government has been asleep, so has the media. Individual media organs have occasionally dipped into the issue of Dover traffic congestion and its broader impact on the economy, but there has been no continuity or sustained follow-through. Thus, years down the line, the media collective suddenly seems to be surprised that there will be traffic restrictions in Kent.

The extraordinary thing is that, back in 2012, Defra commissioned a report, pointing out the vulnerabilities of Dover, and the potential effects of disruption on our food supply. And that was long before Brexit was a thing.

Now, we're left with a perfect storm which was basically predicted eight years ago, while the media has let the grass grow under its feet, unconstrained by its own ignorance. But at least now, we have a slow dawn of realisation – but it is far too late to influence policy. The only point now of reporting this is for our entertainment.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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