As Operation Stack is implemented for the sixth time in five weeks & Kent MPs set to meet at County Hall on Friday to discuss emergency proposals to halt the gridlock caused we ask why should taxpayers in Kent foot the bill for what is, surely, a national and economic issue, and what can we do to prevent such road chaos again in the run up to the summer holidays?
On 17th January lorry fires led to the closure of the Channel Tunnel, resulting in a 25 year-old emergency procedure being put into force on a section of the M20 in Kent. Four days later it was hard to find a resident in the M20 corridor who hadn’t been affected in some way by the traffic chaos that followed. Operation Stack – the bane of locals’ lives, or a minor inconvenience – has the capacity to enrage politicians, residents and business owners, alike. But who is to blame and, more importantly, what can be done to prevent the road to hell from January happening again?
Devised in 1988 as a short-term solution to the problems caused by British seaman striking at Folkestone, Operation Stack gives Kent Police the option of queuing lorries on a section of the M20 motorway, when there are delays at the channel crossing terminals. As a way of controlling the congestion and flow of freight traffic into the Port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel terminal, it effectively turns the motorway into a giant carpark.
This year, Operation Stack was implemented in the early hours of 21st January after a weekend of problems caused by a lorry fire in the Channel Tunnel, and a power supply problem leading to reduced Eurotunnel service. To add to the woes, another power failure meant further delays and finally, after discussions with Kent Police, the Highways Agency, the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel, Operation Stack was put into force. It was lifted completely on the Saturday evening after four days of hell for local residents and businesses trying to move about the area. Thousands of motorists were affected as 2,000 lorries queued on the M20 in a 20-mile tailback with engines running and no facilities.
Highlighting the sense of emergency, Kent Police informed motorists not to travel unless absolutely necessary. With ever increasing numbers of freight lorries on the roads as the UK economy improves, many people felt this was the worst experience of Operation Stack Kent had seen as families were unable to access the motorway, and surrounding roads were gridlocked as drivers desperately looked for alternative routes, avoiding the queuing trucks. School runs were affected, trips to hospitals were cancelled, and businesses lost trade as customers were unable to travel.
Where is Stack?
The M20 is the main road from London and most of Britain to the Kent ports and Channel Tunnel. It runs south-east from the M25 motorway, connecting with the rest of the motorway network.
Lorries are parked on the carriageways as below, with all other traffic diverted onto the A20:
Phase 1: coast-bound from junction 11 (Hythe) to 12 (Cheriton)
Phase 2: coast-bound from junction 8 (Maidstone) to 9 (Ashford)
Phase 3: London-bound from junction 9 (Ashford) to 8 (Maidstone)
As well as inconveniencing residents’ travel plans, Operation Stack impacts them in other ways, perhaps most significantly through the high level of policing it requires, meaning less police time is given to serious crime and victim support. And at an approximate daily cost of £25,000 to police, there is a suggestion it is money poorly spent.
Ann Barnes, the Kent Police and Crime Commissioner, lives in Lyminge and was personally affected by the Stack chaos in January: “It is as deeply frustrating for me as for everyone else, particularly because I live in the east of the county so I know how bad it is down here for us. Whilst the Highways Agency has responsibility for managing the traffic, Kent Police does an excellent job supporting them in difficult times, especially when the force is already very stretched. The force budget has been cut significantly in recent years and a fifth of the workforce has gone since 2010, yet we have 35 police officers helping out with Operation Stack. Those 35 police officers should be out in our communities helping the local people who pay for them, rather than having them ‘babysit’ lorry drivers on the M20,” she said. The idea that Kent is wrongly bearing the brunt of the cost and inconvenience of a national problem is a common one, with Kent Police’s own Chief Superintendent Adrian Futers taking to Twitter: “Frustrated that Operation Stack seen as Kent Police issue with limited staff doing their best. After 10+yrs others need to resolve now!”
Damian Green, MP for Ashford, said the situation was “worse than ever before” and questioned the Transport Secretary Patrick Mcloughlin in the House of Commons asking for “an off-road solution” to Operation Stack. The minister replied: “Following what’s been going on this week, we do need to investigate further and I’m more than happy to meet with him [Damian Green] and the relevant authorities to discuss what could be the solution, should this happen again”. Considering the length of time Operation Stack has been regularly called upon, the inevitability that it “should happen again” is surely not in doubt – the question is what can be done before the next time? Even the Roads Minister, John Hayes, understands “the scale and urgency” of the situation.
IS THERE A SOLUTION TO STACK?
So what are the possible answers to this problem, which is well over two decades old? Natalie Chapman, Head of Policy at the Freight Transport Association (FTA), based in Tunbridge Wells, knows the impact Operation Stack has on their members, and states that the solution lies in truck stops along the M20: “We would like to see the back of Stack. It causes huge disruption and inflicts misery on those living and working in the M20 corridor. But it’s the only tool we have at the moment to manage the situation in unforeseen circumstances. But we need to focus on an alternative and this is to create a network of lorry parks in Kent,” she said.
Most of the agencies involved are in agreement and KCC is currently purchasing the land adjacent to the STOP24 services at Westenhanger, Folkestone. It plans to develop an around-the-clock truck stop to relieve the pressure when Operation Stack is implemented. Originally the capacity for this site was 300 trucks, but at the end of January, the government announced it will invest around £3 million, through the Local Growth Fund, to tackling Operation Stack. The lorry park estimate has now increased to 1,500 to 3,000 lorries, which would go some way to alleviating the problem, but some are not happy with the proposal. David Monk, Conservative leader of Shepway District Council said: “Kent County Council originally proposed a 450-space lorry park, but it reduced this to 300 following its own environmental concerns and in the face of our objections. Now we are faced with a bonkers proposal to create a 3,000-space lorry park that will be used at most four times a year. It’s ridiculous.”
One thing is certain though – nothing will be solved unless all the interested parties are on board and in agreement, regardless of whether the funds to build new lorry parks are there or not. “What we need is national support. This is not just an issue for Kent – we need to nationally take responsibility. Mudslinging and apportioning blame is not helpful as no one individual can sort it out, but if we combine our resources, we can,” says Natalie Chapman from FTA.
A step towards that joined-up approach happened recently at a meeting in a House of Commons’ Committee room on 2nd February, which brought together representatives from all of those interested parties including the Highways Agency, Kent County Council, local MPs, the FTA, Kent Police, the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel. The plan was to try to develop a strategy for the future, but the outcome of the meeting and future plans have not yet been made public. But those decision makers need to get a move on. Freight going through the Port of Dover and on Eurotunnel has increased dramatically over the past few years as the UK economy improves, so this problem is only going to get worse unless something is done now. Eurotunnel anticipates that within five to 10 years, there will be an extra million trucks coming through the Port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel – an increase of a third – and it is expected that number of times Operation Stack is put in place will rise correspondingly.
As long as the M20 is moving, and Operation Stack is not put into force causing the mayhem it did in January, other issues climb the political agenda and different priorities jump the queue, particularly in the lead up to a general election. But they shouldn’t. Ann Barnes sums it up very nicely: “How long must the people of Kent wait for a solution to this never-ending problem?”
YOUR VIEWS FROM THE WEB
“Operation Stack or not the area needs extra capacity for HGV parking. As a resident of Folkestone and international truck driver I see the problem from both sides. It’s almost impossible to park in East Kent after 18:00 on a Saturday now as Dover, Ashford, Maidstone and STOP24 are full and building a large and affordable parking area away from large housing areas will alleviate the problem of trucks parking in residential areas as many drivers have no choice but to park there. It doesn’t help that some of the current providers of parking charge around £30 just to park of the road for a nine hour break which for some of the Eastern European is half a day’s wages!”
“Can’t they just park on the coastbound motorway and then leave London bound as an A road with two way traffic and a sensible speed limit? Overhead gantries with lane lights? Why concrete over a load of land and rarely use it? Who will pay for it?”
“If you look around the County of Kent, you will find lorries parked up all over the place trying to get in their lawful breaks. This affects local communities all over; they damage roadside verges and leave rubbish and human waste everywhere. We just don’t have the facilities for them. Contrast that with France, and quite frankly our Department for Transport should be ashamed of itself.”
“The Americans, Canadians, French, German, and in fact most countries in the world have places, they call them ‘Truck Stops’. Great idea, as they have restaurants, washing facilities, WCs etc. No cars or buses allowed, just trucks.”
“Having seen proper truck stops in America, I am really surprised no one in the private sector has done this already. I was discussing the opportunity for something like this with my wife probably 15 years ago!”