What will happen to Operation Stack if Britain leaves both the Tax and Customs Union?
Whatever one’s views of Brexit are, it is undeniable that a reintroduction of customs and tax checks will result in much longer delays at the ports, and it is hard to see how this could be managed without impact on the roads of Kent.
The port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel see an average of at least 10,000 trucks per day, and the people of Kent are well aware of what can happen when this flow is interrupted by adverse weather or striking dock workers: The lack of geographical space in Dover and Ashford means that lorries have nowhere to park, and with such a volume of trucks there simply is no feasible alternative to turning large sections of the M2 and M20 motorways into temporary parking lots.
But how far will it go? Fears that Operation Stack could extend up the M20 as far as the M25 junctions at Swanley or Sevenoaks may seem far fetched, but on closer analysis they are not in the realm of the impossible.
As most recently seen during the strike by French dockyard workers in the summer of 2015, Operation Stack can extend over 30 miles as far as Maidstone, and there is little reason to think this marks the ultimate limit of how long it could become.
While it probably is extremely unlikely that it would extend as much as an extra 20 miles up the M20 to reach Swanley, it is just as unlikely that there would be no impact at all. A more realistic estimate would probably sit somewhere between these figures – taking us a further 5 miles up to Leybourne, or 10 miles as far as the M26 Junction at Wrotham.
Increased Frequency as the bigger Problem
While these are estimates based on what are currently extreme scenarios, there is another dimension to this debate that is far more important – rather than looking at how long the queues for Operation Stack could become, we should asking how often we will have to deal with it.
The answer to this is – much more often. The increasing frequency of Operation Stack is much more assured than its increasing length in distance.
A reintroduction of customs at the ports will cause delays no matter what the weather, so what are now seeing as extreme scenarios will become regular occurrences in future. The time it takes to inspect each vehicle being loaded onto a ferry or the train is simply too long to avoid doing so without causing long queues at customs controls. It is a problem that has long been recognised – and was long resolved – by the creation of the EU Customs Union.