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House of Commons Hansard
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Operation Stack/Lorry Parking in Kent
25 October 2017
Volume 630

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered Operation Stack and lorry parking in Kent.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am pleased to be joined by my county colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). It is great to see the Minister in his place. He is no stranger to this issue, and has been involved in it personally over the past couple of years.

For the benefit of hon. Members, I want to define Operation Stack and set out how the situation stands in Kent at the moment. The operational procedure has been in place for a number of years. When delays occur at the channel tunnel or the port of Dover, road freight has no way of exiting the country. Under the system designed by Highways England, lorries park on the M20—in the initial phase, between Maidstone and Ashford, and then between Ashford and junction 11 of the M20. Closing the coast-bound carriageway of the M20 causes major disruption and congestion on the A20 and other strategic roads in Kent, as the traffic has nowhere else to flow.

Operation Stack, in phases 1 and 2, holds more than 4,000 vehicles, and when it is fully implemented it can take up to five days for the management of traffic to return to its normal state. It can be triggered for a variety of reasons; all it requires is a delay. In recent years, it has been triggered by a fire in the channel tunnel, strike action in France and migrant activity in France, which disrupted services through the tunnel. Equally, it could be triggered by bad weather that prevents ships from crossing the channel.

The capacity of the route is strategically important to the country, as 90% of the country’s road freight trade with Europe runs through Kent and either across the Dover straits or underneath them through the channel tunnel. If there is a problem at either the tunnel or the port, there is not enough capacity for the other to compensate, which causes delays. Whether the delays are caused by the weather or human action, they can come suddenly and without warning, so a system of resilience is required.

Kent residents and businesses have lived with Operation Stack for a number of years, but the situation came to a head in 2015, when it was implemented for 31 days, mostly in June and July. It caused major disruptions and a major loss of revenue for businesses, and made life intolerable for many people in the county. As Kent Members of Parliament, we felt that the people of Kent should never again have to experience what they lived through that summer.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am extremely disappointed about the amount of time it is taking to action a solution to Operation Stack. Every time it is implemented, Maidstone—the county town of Kent—which is in my constituency, grinds to a halt, causing havoc. Matters could be improved if Highways England worked more effectively and more closely with parish, borough and county councils.

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I completely concur with my hon. Friend’s remarks.

After the crisis in 2015, the Government agreed that a different solution to Operation Stack was needed to allow the motorway network to remain open, even when there are delays. It was agreed that an off-road solution was the only workable, long-term solution to Operation Stack. That means that the 4,000-plus lorries held in phases 1 and 2 of Operation Stack need to be held off road at a location that can serve both the channel tunnel and the port of Dover. It needs to be to the east of the channel tunnel and directly accessible from the motorway network in order not to disturb other roads, and it needs to be delivered at pace.

In the 2015 autumn statement, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, committed the Government to a £250 million investment that would deliver that solution. The idea was that it would be delivered at pace, and it should have been operational this year. Highways England embarked on a process of consultation to identify the correct site for the lorry park, and the site at Stanford West in my constituency was chosen. The choice of the site had the support of the district council, and it received majority support from the respondents to a consultation conducted by Highways England.

Nevertheless, the location of a piece of major infrastructure is not to be taken lightly. It clearly causes concern and disruption for the people who live close to it, so it is incumbent on the Government to work with the local community to try to put those concerns at rest. They should make clear their intention to carry through their plan to build the lorry park, so we can end the blight of Operation Stack and give the country the national infrastructure and resilience it needs to protect that important strategic route. They must also reach a settlement with the people who live close to it and are most directly affected.

The Department for Transport started a compulsory purchase scheme on a discretionary basis for residents whose properties abutted the site. It also identified that Westenhanger Castle—a business run as a venue for events and weddings—would also be blighted by the building of the lorry park and therefore should qualify for compensation. Talks along those lines were progressing but were stopped when a judicial review application against the building of the lorry park was submitted by Westenhanger Castle and supported by two other entities—Stanford Parish Council and Henry Boot plc.

There has been considerable negotiation between the Department and the castle owner about their judicial review application. The consequence of the judicial review application, in addition to the general election and other delays, is that a year has been lost. Rather than waiting for the judicial review, will the Minister commit to having a last attempt at negotiating with the castle owner and the other applicants so that a settlement can be reached and the judicial review application withdrawn? That would enable work to start on the lorry park, and the business owner will receive the compensation he is due and will be able to move on.

Given that the Prime Minister and Ministers have always stated that the Government intend to build the lorry park to give us the resilience we need, I see no reason why the discretionary purchase of properties in Stanford village cannot continue, so that residents are not trapped in limbo but can reach a reasonable settlement with the Department and move on with their lives.

Highways England has completed the consultation with the local community to determine what they would like to see in mitigation, such as the design of the lorry park to reduce its visual impact or the creation of a buffer zone between the northern part of the site and the village of Stanford. The completed plans, updated by Highways England in response to the consultation, were secured by my constituent, the owner of Westenhanger Castle, under freedom of information. Given that those plans have already been published by the Department, they should be made publicly available so that people can see how the Government have responded to the consultation with their plans for the lorry park.

Will the Minister recommit to the commitment made by the Prime Minister and other Ministers that the Government intend to deliver the lorry park at pace, to contest the judicial review with the intent of winning it and, if unsuccessful, to make whatever adjustments are necessary to their plans in order to continue with them and to make the lorry park operational? As the Government prepare and negotiate for Britain’s exit from the European Union, investment in this sort of robust infrastructure is more important than ever.

We cannot say what the future will hold in terms of how frictionless trade will work if Britain is not a member of the single market, but it is possible that delays will be caused. I was looking at a speech made by Margaret Thatcher in 1988, launching the business case for the creation of the single market. She highlighted two things. First, she expressed the concern that the issue was about

“Not the classic barriers of tariffs, but the insidious ones of differing national standards, various restrictions on the provision of services, exclusion of foreign firms from public contracts”,

so what she wanted to ensure was

“Action to remove the customs barriers and formalities so that goods can circulate freely and without time-consuming delays.”

When the single market was being created, Margaret Thatcher understood that it was about removing not only tariffs but restrictions on and delays to trade.

Any time delay in the processing of freight in and out of the country will cause massive traffic congestion in Kent. If we want the country to be ready for Brexit on day one, that includes being ready with the infrastructure in place to support it. If there were customs delays, it is possible that Operation Stack would once again become a frequent and unwelcome visitor to the county, causing massive congestion and making life intolerable for residents and businesses. It is therefore even more important that the investment that the Government promised two years ago to deliver the Operation Stack relief lorry park is proceeded with at pace. If it is possible to avoid the judicial review and negotiate a settlement, we should take that opportunity. After the review is completed, we should make sure that we get on with the work.

If there is any danger that the lorry park will not be completed in time for spring 2019, the Government should put in place additional resilience for when the park is still being finished—not instead of the lorry park, but in case it is needed ahead of the park’s being completed. It is better than nothing to have Manston airport on standby, ready to provide parking space for freight that cannot leave the country, but it is not an adequate or long-term solution. The Government have recognised that.

The only and proper long-term solution that has been planned for is the relief lorry park. We need to get on with that for the country and the county. We should put the residents of my constituency whose property abuts the lorry park site out of their plight and proceed with the compensation that they are due, so that they can move on with their lives and not have to wait for any further delays.

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What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, and to engage once again with my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on these matters! I congratulate him on securing this debate.

My hon. Friend has shown immense perseverance in the pursuit of this subject; as he implied at the beginning, he and I have discussed it during my various stints at the Department. He has been courageous. I think it was C. S. Lewis who said that courage was not merely one of the virtues, but the greatest of the virtues: my hon. Friend has been not only courageous but patient, because this has been a long business.

Let me say a word or two at the outset about lorry parking more generally. As my hon. Friend knows well, I have taken a direct personal interest in the issue of heavy goods vehicles and their parking, as well as in the circumstances in which many lorry drivers find themselves when they park. Too often, lorry drivers face inadequate parking provision—not only the number of spaces available, but the conditions that they have to endure. I am absolutely determined that that should not perpetuate.

It is perfectly reasonable that truckers should be able to stop and rest—they are obliged to, by the way—in reasonable comfort. We will never get more women to drive HGVs while there are no facilities for them at many truck stops. We will never get more people to consider a career in logistics while they face inadequate security at truck stops. We will never get satisfactory working conditions for people while they do not have somewhere to rest, recoup and enjoy decent food before going about their lawful business. I am absolutely determined to ensure that all those things happen.

There are two pertinent pieces of work, the first of which is our work on motorway service areas. As the House knows, I have convened a working party to look at that matter generally. Lorry parking is a key part of its study, from which we will report in connection with the matters mentioned by my hon. Friend. Secondly, I have convened a couple of roundtables with the industry, working with the companies involved, the trade unions and others to ensure that we get better provision throughout the country, not just in Kent.

The problems highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe pervade in Kent. As we know from previous debates on the subject, including here in Westminster Hall, there are problems in other parts of the country too. For example, there is inadequate lorry parking provision in the midlands: we have heard contributions from hon. Members about the problems they face there when great new logistic parks are built without adequate lorry parking. That planning issue needs to be addressed, and I am happy to commit to holding further discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government about whether the existing planning rules and assumptions are sufficient.

Those are my more general points; I will come to the specifics in a moment.

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The Department should also look at the story of the lorry park and the fact that we are where we are two years on, with a year lost because of the judicial review. I am sure that there are lessons to be learned from the way in which Highways England proceeded with its application, which was not good. Certainly the previous Prime Minister’s ambition that the park should be finished “at pace” has not been met because of planning issues.

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As my hon. Friend knows, I was involved in establishing Highways England to replace the old Highways Agency. In doing so, we were anxious that Highways England should adopt a rather different approach from its predecessor’s. That is not to say that everything the Highways Agency did was wrong—of course it was not—but I saw the opportunity to improve on its approach.

We continue to work with Highways England to get that right; part of it is proper engagement with colleagues in this House and with the general public. Had there been a more generous regime in that respect—to put it as mildly as possible—we might have ended up in a different place. Apart from the issue of the character of the environmental impact assessment, which is at the heart of this debate, greater engagement and dialogue is an important part of how we want to move forward.

Yes, I am conscious of the needs of our truckers. I would like to see myself as the truckers’ friend—it is better for other people to say that than me, but if that is how the truckers want to see me, so be it—and I am certainly determined to ensure that our HGV drivers and the businesses that employ them get a better deal on lorry parking generally. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe I know shares that ambition—he has been a great champion of their interests, too.

Now let me turn to Kent. My hon. Friend knows that we are in the middle of a judicial proceeding, which limits some of what I can say. It does not limit me entirely; he knows me well enough to know that I will stretch those limits to their very breaking point, but I have to be cautious. We are subject to a judicial review, of which he is well aware, and he and I have discussed it previously.

Nevertheless, let me make three or four core points, the first of which is that two objectives are associated with the circumstances in Kent. I have a pre-prepared text with me, but as you know, Mr Chope, it is not my habit to read them—I think it is terribly tedious to do so. The Chamber deserves better.

The first objective, to which my hon. Friend made ample reference, is to ensure that when Stack is operational we do not end up with the delays, congestion and all that arises from that in Kent—particularly on the M20, but well beyond, too, to the adjacent roads. That requirement is fundamental. My hon. Friend has said before, and rightly implied again today, that in 2015 there was what might be called a perfect storm, when a series of events occurred that meant that Stack happened several times during a relatively short period. That can occur as a result of weather conditions, industrial action, circumstances on the other side of the channel and so forth—he is well aware of all that. That created an intolerable burden on the people of Kent.

Operation Stack has a big effect on the wider economy, as my hon. Friend has also said many times. We move goods largely by sea and then by truck—and train, too. When congestion occurs in Kent, it has a knock-on effect across the whole of our kingdom. Ninety-five per cent. of the goods that we export and buy—some we want and some we need—are carried by sea. They often end up on trucks because of how commerce works. We cannot allow that congestion to perpetuate, so we must have a solution that avoids congestion in Kent. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that I am considering a range of short, medium and long-term options. We should be nothing other than lateral and broad-minded in our thinking about how we avoid the eventuality. That is not to say that he is not right, but there are several ways in which we can deal with the problem. I assure him that that work is ongoing.

The second requirement is to have sufficient lorry parking space. The proposal that is now subject to judicial review originated because we recognised that we needed considerable space to accommodate the volume of traffic that might be displaced as a result of Operation Stack. We know the history very well, and this is where I have to be cautious. The assessment that was done was gauged by some to be insufficient, and as a result the process stalled. We are now part of judicial proceedings, of which my hon. Friend is well aware. The fact remains that the issue will not go away, given the 40 ferries leaving the port of Dover, the 130 train departures handled by Eurotunnel and the growth that we anticipate in that traffic. We have to deal with the challenge of congestion and the prevailing challenge of lorry parking.

I take the view, which I think my hon. Friend shares—he may intervene if he does not, or even if he does—that we need to look at other sites in Kent, too. There is certainly space for incremental growth at a number of the existing sites in Kent and beyond. I have told the sector that I am very happy to look at where we can achieve that incremental growth. It is not sufficient in itself, but it is an important additional consideration.

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Does the Minister recognise that there are two issues? There is a need for incremental growth in lorry parking, particularly on the M2/A2 northern routes through Kent. But that should not be instead of the Operation Stack lorry park needed on the M20 route to cope with phases 1 and 2 of Stack.

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I entirely endorse that view. That is a separate and related matter, but it is not an alternative—it is a supplement to the fundamental issue that my hon. Friend has raised. In that respect, I want to look at whether we can consider an easier process for the incremental growth of lorry parking, both in Kent and more widely across the country. There is a thirst for additional lorry parking at a number of locations, and providers are willing to consider incremental growth. It does not seem to me that when there is no obvious objection—from adjacent properties or about the effect on local amenities—growth should not be accelerated. Again, I am happy to talk to my colleagues across Government to try to bring that about.

With respect to Kent, my hon. Friend knows that we are putting into place a “clamp first” policy, for which I take most of the credit but not all, and which we will trial from the end of this month. Colleagues across Kent complained about some of the illegal parking that was taking place and the difficulties that local authorities in Kent were having in deterring and indeed punishing those involved in such parking. Indeed, I met local authorities to discuss that. People park in the most extraordinary places: on slip roads to service stations, in small villages, by people’s driveways, in lay-bys and so on.

Given that about 88% of traffic going to Europe both through the tunnel and by ferry is foreign, it does not seem unreasonable to assume, as the Road Haulage Association has told me, that the vast majority of those who park illegally are foreign, too. Collecting fines from people who were going to far-off places is not straightforward, so we will trial the “clamp first” policy—but if we have such a policy, we must have lorry parking so that people can park legally. We are now back to our original proposal, which is subject to the judicial review, and my point about additional parking. It is not good enough to clamp people if they cannot park somewhere safely, securely and legally.

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I appreciate that the Minister is running out of time, but will he address the specific questions that I asked about settling the judicial review proceeding with compensation for residents in Stanford and publishing the revised lorry park plans?

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I am happy to address all those matters on a considered basis. I suggest that I meet my hon. Friend promptly, with my officials, to discuss those particular issues. His advocacy of the interests of the people directly concerned is beyond question and it is quite proper that he should consider support for those residents. I am more than happy to explore that with him. I can tell him this: he will get a lot more out of me than he would out of a lot of Ministers.

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As the Minister knows, I have met him and the Secretary of State before on that basis; I do not want us to keep going round in circles on this issue. We need the Minister to state a position. I do not know whether he can do that today or whether he will check with his officials and the Secretary of State and do so in writing to me later in the week, but I feel that we need an answer. The issues are very familiar to him and his officials.

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I am prepared to both meet and write to my hon. Friend; I have no hesitation in offering both. It is very important that we offer sufficient reassurance to persuade the people he represents and others that the Government are serious about these matters and are acting with honour. The Government must stand by the people affected by Stack and the congestion that I have mentioned, and we must stand by those affected by proposals for dealing with the inadequacy of lorry parking space.

In summary, it is always a pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend. I do not say lightly that he has shown courage, patience and perseverance in pursuit of this matter. The Government are in a difficult position because the matter is subject to judicial proceedings and it would be quite wrong for me to stray beyond the parameters that have been set for me, notwithstanding the fact that—so far at least—I have made no reference to my prepared text. I will meet my hon. Friend and write to him promptly along the lines I have described. I hope that he will accept that as not only a gesture but a substantial expression of good will.

Question put and agreed to.