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Operation Stack

Volume 456: debated on Thursday 1 February 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

I am grateful for the chance to speak about the subject that most enrages not only my constituents but people all over east and north Kent—including, I suspect, the constituents not only of the Minister but of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) who is the duty Whip. I imagine that their constituents regularly get as angry as my constituents do about being caught up in the backwash of Operation Stack.

Operation Stack is the use of the M20 as a lorry park whenever there are problems getting lorries across the channel. It must be the worst piece of emergency transport planning anywhere in Britain. We all accept that motorways can be closed if there is a serious accident or if weather conditions dictate. But I am not aware of any other motorway that is regularly closed as a matter of deliberate policy to address a problem that has nothing to do with driving conditions.

The closures are becoming increasingly common. In the 20 years since Operation Stack was first introduced, phase 1, which involves closing the motorway at the end, between junctions 11 and 12, has been implemented 74 times. Phase 2—closure between junctions 8 and 9 around my constituency in Ashford—has happened 17 times. But last year it was invoked six times, and it has happened three times so far this year already. I can speak with some feeling about recent incidents because on Thursdays I drive home down the M20 and leave at junction 8, as I will tonight. It takes about an hour and a quarter—or not, if there is a queue of lorries tailing back from junction 8 waiting to be stacked. Closing the motorway should be absolutely the last resort. In this bizarre policy, it is the first resort.

The combination of the notorious French attitude to industrial relations, which involves closing the port of Calais at the first available excuse, and the weather in winter, means that unless something is done, this policy will be a never-ending misery. I am not using exaggerated language. I could fill my entire time in this debate—and probably the Minister’s—reading out letters and e-mails from my own constituents explaining how the closure of the M20 has affected them. Inevitably, it clogs up every main road in east Kent as people try to avoid it. People take hours to get to work. Appointments are missed. Contracts are lost. Business grinds to a halt. If the Minister thinks that I am exaggerating, I refer him to the KentOnline website, where he can see dozens of examples of what happens. I have studied the website to learn the current feelings about Operation Stack, and even I was surprised by the number and vehemence of the complaints about it. That website is one of many with competing petitions to the effect that it must stop immediately.

Operation Stack is not just a personal inconvenience for those involved. It has a damaging effect on the whole economy of the county. A survey for the Federation of Small Businesses in Kent showed that levels of dissatisfaction with the road network are significantly higher in Kent even than in the rest of the country. The federation has calculated that the cost to its members in Kent alone is £10 million a year, and the overall effect on Kent businesses will of course be much larger.

In that context, I remind the Minister of the need for incoming investment to provide jobs for the people who will move to the 31,000 new houses planned for my constituency in the next 25 years, or to the many thousands of other houses that it is hoped will be built in Kent. The plans just for Ashford assume, grandly, that 28,000 new jobs will be created. In an increasingly competitive world, we need to entice businesses to come to Kent. Closing the motorway for unspecified periods at unexpected but regular intervals, and doing so more and more frequently, is exactly the wrong way to encourage new investment in the county.

On top of the economic damage being done, there is an effect on the Kent police. Like many forces, they are extremely stretched. The chief constable of Kent is Mike Fuller, who has called the existing method of dealing with the backlog of trucks waiting to cross the channel a “huge drain” on police resources. He said:

“It is not something we want to do, nor something we do lightly.”

In the past three years, Operation Stack has cost the Kent police more than £232,000 in overtime and extra equipment costs alone. The chief constable has said:

“We are desperate for the highways authorities to come up with a solution.”

That desperation is echoed by many other people.

The problem is getting worse every year, as freight traffic increases. Some 2.3 million trucks use the ferries at Dover every year, and roughly another 1.2 million use the channel tunnel as a freight route. In 2006, the amount of freight going through Dover rose by about 18 per cent., and that is expected to double over the next 20 years. If the problem is bad now, we can expect it to get much worse in the years to come—unless we do something about it now.

Before I move on to the solutions being proposed, I want to raise one other matter—the sheer time that it has taken for anyone to get a grip on the problem. The letters in my file go back as far as 1999, and they make depressing reading for students of public policy and governance in this country. Over the years, the police have said that they are doing what they are told to do, the county council that it is doing what the Government demands, and the district councils that they have neither the power nor the money to solve the problem. The Department for Transport and the Highways Agency have said that Operation Stack is indeed is a problem, and that they will deal with it some day. The traffic stops, but the buck keeps moving.

That is why I am delighted that Kent county council has taken the initiative of looking for some sites, one of which would be suitable for parking some 2,000 lorries. That would make a significant difference to the need for Operation Stack. The council is working closely with the relevant borough councils of Ashford, Dover, Shepway and Maidstone, and with the channel corridor partnership.

As the Minister will be aware, those borough councils are vitally interested in the matter, as there is a longer-term need to provide permanent lorry parking in that part of the world. Many areas, including parts of Ashford, are regularly blighted by unofficial and sometimes illegal parking. One of the beneficial side effects of having a lorry park that could cope with Operation Stack would be a partial alleviation of that longer-term problem.

However, that is not the main focus of my plea to the Minister this evening. I know that he is aware of the problems associated with the motorway network and the freight routes through Kent. I was glad to see his honesty and straightforwardness when he admitted to the Select Committee on Transport that the approach to the port of Dover was one of the elements of this country’s transport system that we have not got right. Everyone agrees about that, but it is a longer-term problem. I am talking about an immediate problem that needs an immediate solution.

I hope that the Minister is encouraged by the work that has been done so far by the councils, and especially by the helpful work on technological advances. I understand that it is now not necessary to put down large amounts of concrete over green fields to create a temporary truck stop. We can use underground mesh to strengthen the turf, which allows the grass to continue to grow but provides a strong enough surface for a lorry park. We need to take environmental considerations into account. This new method, which would not have been available some years ago, offers a practical way forward which will minimise some of the inevitable environmental damage, and therefore opposition, that arises from setting up a new lorry park.

What am I asking for this evening? I want the Minister to commit his Department to doing everything in its power to push through an alternative to Operation Stack as soon as possible. The current feasibility study into the sites identified by Kent county council will take only a few weeks. I hope and expect that the councils will also receive some positive help from the South East England Development Agency, which is rightly taking an interest in all this. Its duty is to foster economic development throughout the region, and without a solution to Operation Stack, steady prosperity and economic development in Kent will be much more difficult to achieve.

In the end, all the work of SEEDA, the county council and the district councils will not create a solution unless central Government become actively involved. Clearly, on a practical level any possible solution will require access roads and will need to complement the existing road network. Equally clearly, the funding of any new arrangement will need at the very least Department for Transport blessing, even if it comes, as I suspect it can, from existing programmes. I hope that the Minister can commit himself to more than warm words when he responds. I hope that he will commit himself and his Department to working with Kent county council and the other public bodies and, most of all, commit his Department to a leading role. I fear that without an active and leading role, the solution will again fall into the category of something that is too difficult and “not my problem”, which is where this has lain for far too long.

The Minister will be aware that 2007 has so far been an appallingly frustrating year for those of us who regularly use the M20. Let us at least go through this year in the hope and expectation that it will be the last year that we will have to endure Operation Stack. If we can achieve that, and if he can play a positive role in achieving it, everyone involved will give thanks, from the road haulage industry to my constituents, his constituents and the thousands of others who use the roads in east Kent. We cannot carry on like this, and I hope that the Minister can assure us that we will not have to.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) for raising this important issue and I congratulate him on securing the debate. We are having a Kent night here since the Government Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) is a Kent Member, as am I.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman realises this, but as well as being the roads Minister, I am the road safety Minister and I have noted that he can get to junction 8 on the M20 in an hour and a quarter at this time on a Thursday night. I think that I shall be asking our chief constable to keep an eye open for him.

As a Kent Member, as well as roads Minister, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about Operation Stack, which has a major impact on east Kent. I am as anxious as he is to find a solution for constituency and ministerial reasons. I certainly hope that I can offer him more than warm words tonight.

Since the beginning of December, Operation Stack has been implemented five times, mainly because of the severe weather. That has led to a high level of non-HGV diversionary traffic on local roads and disrupted journeys for many people. Indeed, I have been caught up in it myself, so I understand the frustration first-hand.

The origins of Operation Stack go back to the seamen’s strike of 1988 when the M20 was closed between junctions 9 and 13 for about 14 weeks—the M20 between junctions 8 and 9 was not open at the time. However, that use of the M20 was not formalised and before 1997 the normal emergency traffic management plan involved allowing lorries and cars to park anywhere, especially on the A20, although many used local roads—I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would not want us to return to that arrangement. Because we recognised the serious disruption that was being caused for local residents and businesses, a system was developed to provide emergency parking on the M20 for heavy goods vehicles; in essence, that was the Operation Stack that operates nowadays.

Operation Stack is for emergencies, and the decision to implement is taken by Kent police who invoke their emergency powers. Its three phases can together provide space for a total of 7,400 trucks that would otherwise be parked on unsuitable roads. I am told that the police have never had to use phase 3, although I understand that it came close to being implemented during the recent severe weather.

Over the years improvements have been made to the use of Operation Stack. A ticketing regime has been introduced by transport operators, whereby lorries are sequentially ticketed and queued for boarding on the closed motorway, which helps to prevent lorries that try to avoid stacking on the M20 from clogging up less suitable roads. At Easter 2005, when Stack had to be implemented an exceptional number of times, owing to berthing problems at Calais, the Highways Agency and the police trialled new contraflow arrangements between junctions 8 and 9 on the northbound carriageway, allowing lorries to be stacked on the southbound carriageway while also allowing other southbound traffic to use part of the northbound carriageway to go south.

Although it took a long time to set up the cones, which proved resource-intensive for the police and the Highways Agency contractors, the use of a contraflow system was considered a success in terms of better traffic management. However, the system normally takes too long to set up with conventional coning to be useful, given the short notice that we usually have of the need for Operation Stack, and for safety reasons the police do not recommend a system based on cones. As a result, studies were carried out on the possibility of using an American system, the quickchange moveable barrier—QMB—to implement speedier contraflow arrangements. The system is being used at the A2-M2 roadworks in Kent, where our joint constituents can see it working effectively in practice.

Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman may have implied, I emphasise that we have not been complacent. We have not been sitting around doing nothing; we have constantly looked for ways to improve Operation Stack—how traffic is managed and how we can ensure compliance of trucks in parking on the M20, where they can be managed, rather than on other roads. In addition, the Highways Agency is working in partnership with the local authorities to review the effects of Operation Stack and is considering what improvements might be possible, both in the short and medium term, to reduce the delay both for cross-channel and local travellers.

In the short term, before the end of March this financial year, two improvements to setting up traffic management for Operation Stack will be installed. A new permanent sign will be mounted on the verge approaching the commencement of the traffic management arrangements for Operation Stack. The sign will display “Workforce in Road - Slow Down”, and a warning will be given to drivers by the use of amber flashing beacons. That will help to protect the work force and the police while they install lane closures when Stack is being implemented. The time taken to set up the traffic management arrangements will also be significantly reduced by using black guidelines—set in the road surface—to allow traffic management to be implemented quickly on the correct alignment.

In the medium term, the Highways Agency is making progress in the use of the quickchange moveable barrier, which I mentioned earlier, and now has operational experience of this innovative technique. It was used effectively on a scheme on the A21 last autumn and it has now been adopted at a major project in Kent on the A2-A282. The system is proving beneficial in reducing the length of the contract period, with resulting benefits to all road users. Given the novelty of the system in this country, the Highways Agency has done well to get it trialled so quickly.

Design work has been commissioned for central reserve works to accommodate the QMB and for a storage facility for the QMB machine. That is part of phase 1 of Operation Stack. I expect to see detailed costings and information on the economics of proceeding with the scheme in the next month or so. We are considering a QMB to speed up contraflow arrangements, but in addition, the Highways Agency is examining ways of introducing a package of low-cost traffic management works on the A20 near Dover to ease flow from the M20 to the docks, and it is working with Dover district council and Kent county council on that. Such improvements could include variable message signs, static signs, white lining, local realignment of roundabouts and phased signalling.

The Highways Agency, in partnership with Kent county council and Medway council, is conducting a county-wide variable message sign study. Lack of accurate information is a cause of customer dissatisfaction, according to the Highways Agency’s road user satisfaction survey. The study will assess motorists’ requirements for improved information on both the strategic and the local road network. Discussions are taking place between the Highways Agency and Kent county council to secure operational agreements. That will allow the more effective use of tactical diversions between the M2 and the M20 strategic routes, using the A229 and the A249. Those agreed diversions could be used for Operation Stack, or for any other major incident.

The Highways Agency is working with partners to find short and medium-term solutions to Operation Stack, but as the hon. Gentleman says, we need to find a long-term solution. On the longer term, three or four proposals are being discussed with developers, the district councils and Kent county council. The Government office for the south-east is a supporting partner in the discussions on identifying and bringing forward proposals. In November 2005, it published a paper on the issue, and I understand that it was well received. It was part of the push to bring together all interested parties to determine how Operation Stack could be replaced.

During 2006, the channel corridor partnership, which includes officials from the Government office for the south-east, held the “lorries in Kent” summit. I understand that the summit led to a delegation of Kent partners lobbying the European Commission for recognition of Operation Stack as a trans-European issue. The Department recently commissioned a study to assess whether there is likely to be a business case for the private sector providing a large, multi-use lorry park that could potentially be used for Operation Stack. We hope to have the results by the summer. However, the success of any solution would depend on the role played by the local planning authority and other stakeholders. Potential developers are coming up with proposals that are being investigated and explored. At the moment, four sites are being discussed, and they should be assessed within the context of the study.

From comments in the Kent media, and having checked with Kent officers, I understand that Kent county council is urgently looking for off-road sites. We will receive any ideas that it produces with interest, and will look at them closely. I promise the hon. Gentleman that I will take its ideas seriously and that we will actively investigate them, but I hope that he understands that the site has to be acquired and made accessible to heavy trucks in difficult weather conditions. There is also the matter of building slip roads and other roads leading to the site. Those are not cheap options, and we have to find a cost-effective solution.

I have asked my officials to consider how we might incentivise lorries to find official parking outside Kent as part of a distributed Operation Stack. Perhaps we could encourage lorries to go to lorry parks elsewhere in the country before they even reach Kent, and issue them with tickets in those remote sites, so that when Operation Stack is eventually lifted, they can make the journey to Kent and get on the boat at the time specified on the ticket.

I hope that the Minister will go on to say that there will be some sort of signalling arrangement to provide the information. That would counter the slight chill in the blood that I felt when he mentioned that one of the improvements might be a permanent signalling arrangement to warn people that Operation Stack was about to start. I do not think that anyone in Kent would find that very encouraging. If he promised some kind of signalling arrangement to enable the lorries to be distributed across the country, and not just across the county, people would think it a step forward.

I entirely agree. We have to look at that issue. If we can stop people coming to Kent in the first place when Operation Stack is on, that will make the situation much easier for us to manage. The problem is, of course, that at the moment even if we got the message to a lorry driver that Operation Stack was in place, he or she would have to ask themselves how they would get their place on the boat to get over the channel if they did not come to Kent. They get their place on the boat by coming and queuing up in Operation Stack. Clearly, at the moment they are incentivised to come to Kent and cause us a problem. It would be a matter of, first, finding a way of getting messages to them to tell them not to come to Kent, and, secondly, making sure that, wherever they decide to go to, they can access ticketing arrangements to make sure that they retain their place on the ferry or train. These are complicated issues, but I entirely agree that it is an important matter that we have to focus on.

I have mentioned working in partnership several times. Let me be absolutely clear. I entirely welcome Kent county council’s recent initiative to look into the matter. What I find a little more difficult to deal with is the impression that it gives that the Government have been sitting back doing nothing and finally the council is having to come over the hill like the cavalry to save matters. It has always been a responsibility of Kent county council, as a stakeholder in the issue, to step up to the plate and help us to find a solution and I am grateful that it is doing that now. However, it should not give the impression that it has somehow had to pick up the baton because everybody else has dropped it. We have all been trying to work to find a solution to the matter. If the council has practical ideas about how we can deliver that solution, I welcome its co-operation and we will certainly work closely with it to explore its ideas. However, the Highways Agency and central Government are not able to take planning decisions and there are some important and tricky planning issues that will have to be resolved if a permanent off-road solution to Operation Stack is to be found. It will be a matter for Kent county council and the district councils concerned to co-operate with us in getting those necessary planning permissions.

Let us look forward, however. Let us assume that we are now all determined to work together to solve this matter. Certainly, the Government have always been determined to try to resolve it. I am absolutely determined that we will find a solution to it. There is no easy solution to the problem that is Operation Stack. Local authorities, the port and the channel tunnel, as well as the Government, all have a role to play in finding the answer. We will not find a solution any quicker by ducking our responsibilities and blaming other stakeholders. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman in that respect. We must all play a part and I give him a firm commitment that I will ensure that the Government are an active partner in the process and that we will find a solution as quickly as is humanly possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Six o’clock.