How can we solve the Stack Attack?
The first real cold snap of the winter has brought with it the sadly typical traffic chaos. The major disruptions were caused by the closure of the Channel Tunnel and made worse by the cold and icy driving conditions. Operation Stack was enforced, and lorries were parked on the M20 and along the A20. Eurostar passengers suffered the misery of sitting for hours on trains that had either failed or were held up. This is bad at any time but before Christmas when people are travelling to be with friends and family, this is even worse.
The big question is how we can mitigate against the conditions that lead to the gridlock of our roads when the Channel Tunnel or Port of Dover are closed, due to bad weather in the winter months, or strike action.
There has been much discussion about where we can put the lorries instead of stacking them on the motorway, junctions, roundabouts, lay-bys, country lanes, or anywhere else for that matter. The County Council has favoured the construction of new lorry parks, including a site off of the M20 near Sellindge and Aldington. I do not have a problem with lorry parks in themselves, the big questions though are who pays for them and where they go. The Channel Tunnel and the road infrastructure around it is a major piece of national and international infrastructure, so there should be an, at least, national plan to support them. This means that the Government should be prepared to support the building of new lorry parks, also that they should not necessarily be sited next to the Tunnel or Port of Dover.
More could be done to give lorries the option of leaving the motorway earlier to park up before they get caught up in the congestion of Operation Stack. We could have a network of lorry parks starting nearer to London rather than concentrating them in south east Kent. My concern about the Sellindge lorry park plan is that this becomes part of a creeping industrialisation along the M20 corridor from Ashford which would be totally out of keeping with the area, and make further development of this kind more likely.
I also believe that foreign road hauliers should be made to make some contribution to the maintenance of the road network and support services that they use here. UK hauliers will pay through UK taxes and fuel duty when they fill up their tanks here. Many of the international hauliers will fill up in Luxembourg where fuel tax is very low, and be able to complete their tour of the UK without needing to take on any more fuel. There are a number of schemes being considered, including making all hauliers sign up to a road disc scheme, the cost of which could only be reclaimed if they paid tax on fuel bought in the UK. I believe, despite the objections of some and the intransigence of the Government, that this is a problem that can be solved.
We also need to look at investment in our road infrastructure in Kent as a whole. The demand for road traffic, particularly from lorries is only likely to grow, and already we can see that the current set up is so fragile that as soon as something goes wrong, the whole system can collapse. The Government should have developed plans to complete the A2 dual carriageway to Dover and also consider plans for an additional crossing across the Thames Estuary. We should equally be looking at how the Channel Tunnel can be used to bring more freight by rail into the UK. The Tunnel is currently only operating at 25% of its potential capacity, so there would presumably be scope for more rail freight that could keep more lorries off of Kent roads.
Overall, if we want to see the delays of this weekend become an exception rather than a frequent winter event, we need to plan for a substantial long term solution. Without this, the odd lorry park here or there will be little more than an expensive piece of sticking plaster. We will also require bold and imaginative polices to plan for this at a time when the pressures on Government spending have never been greater. This investment is something that the Government should have planned in the good times, knowing how important it would be to our future prosperity. They failed to do this, and we are all paying the price for it.
Finally I thought it was interesting to note that the Government has recently announced that it is considering selling off assets like the high speed rail link, its shares in the Channel Tunnel, and the Port of Dover. There is no promise that any of this money will be ring fenced to invest in the local transport infrastructure. So in the Government’s mind when these pieces of infrastructure are working well they are considered national assets, belonging to the whole country, but when they create problems for the local communities who live alongside them, the Government considers it to be a local problem.