Reality check for BBC’s Brexit reality check

A red car with a skeleton in the driving seat, holding a copy of the Kentish Express in its 'hand' with a picture of a queue of trucks and the headline "End this chaos!". Behind the car is a sign saying "Welcome to Kent, the garden of England".
Welcome to Kent. (Image: M. Laxton)

Yesterday the BBC News website published a “reality check” feature on what might happen at Britain’s sea ports in the event of a no-deal Brexit this coming October (or any other time), which the present government now seems to regard as a likely default ‘option’. The scenarios include the use of long stretches of motorway, as well as a disused airfield at Manston in north-east Kent, as truck parks to cope with the delays caused by customs checks on all goods going in and out of the country. Parts of the M20 as well as shorter stretches of road near other ports (such as the old Ipswich to Felixstowe road, known as the “old A45” as it was bypassed before the A45 became the A14) are already used for “operation stack” in the event of strikes and other delays, but these arrangements are likely to become a permanent fixture. However, I can see a quite different problem emerging.

Read any edition of the UK’s transport industry press and you will come across a reference to the “driver shortage” fairly quickly: there aren’t enough drivers, and this is why British firms rely so heavily on Polish and other eastern European drivers or else they would not survive. (Complaints about the quality of British drivers are heard quite often; they are often accused of being prima donnas who will not drive a truck that is not absolutely perfect or do difficult jobs.) In my experience, there is in fact plenty of competition for jobs that are pleasant to do and get you home for dinner, or at least bedtime. The jobs that are going begging, that you can sometimes walk straight into off the street, are the ‘tramping’ jobs which require the driver to spend days at a time away from home, sleeping in the narrow bed behind the driver’s seat, in a service station, if you are lucky and your boss will pay the fee, or a lay-by next to a busy road. There is a reason they cannot find drivers for these jobs, regardless of the pay, and this is because they are shitty jobs. Many drivers like to be out of town and to see the country, but this is negated by constantly having to contend with poor or absent facilities.

Being stuck on motorway truck parks for possibly days on end is not going to be most drivers’ idea of a good job; given that a lot of the foreign drivers will leave, chasing better conditions and a warmer welcome in France and Germany, and new ones will not be allowed to replace them, the industry will have to try to recruit British drivers to do the same jobs, and they will have the same difficulty as recruiting drivers for tramping — possibly worse, because the Operation Stack parks are likely to have even fewer facilities and only basic ones such as portable toilets at that. Currently, there are few British drivers doing international trucking as it is; only a few British firms still run to the continent, mostly events firms that transport stage equipment, musical instruments etc for concerts. Many will have to pick up the slack and will have great difficulty doing so. In addition, long waits at these stack points will eat into drivers’ hours allowances and may well result in journeys not being completed. Perishable goods such as food and medicines will get priority, so trucks carrying other goods will have even longer to wait.

Other solutions will have to be found rather than simply having the same driver drive one truck from the UK to almost anywhere in Europe except the immediate areas near to the Channel. One is to use “ferry trailers” which are loaded onto a ferry on one side of the channel and picked up by another driver, driving another tractor unit, on the other side; local drivers will have to be employed to take the trailers from the waiting area (which could be at Manston airfield) to the ferry port and vice versa. This system is already used to transport goods between the UK and the Netherlands, where the ferry crossing is eight hours long rather than 90 minutes, but may need to be used on the Dover-Calais route as well if every consignment has to be customs checked. It may become more profitable to send large consignments between the UK and the continent using a shipping container than a truck; drivers simply pick these up from a port or rail terminal and do not have to worry about dealing with customs. Large companies will be able to have customs come to inspect goods on their sites, of course (and others will spring up to provide that service for smaller businesses across the country, as is the case with air freight which requires scanning), and trucks will travel with the load compartment sealed (again, like air freight), but it will be a huge bureaucratic overhead for industry and require extra training for drivers. This could be put in place in a couple of years (and we have had more than three years to prepare), but we have fewer than three months now.

The bottom line is that not only will there be huge delays, but goods will not get through. Drivers will hit hours limits, or the limits of their patience, in both the official waits or the traffic delays they cause, or refuse to take the jobs on in the first place. The only reason we are facing this possibility is the Tory government and media with a lust for power, behaving like a dog with a bone they will not let go of. There never was any good Brexit deal, but the no-deal scenario is a disaster. Preventing this must be the highest priority for any parliamentarian with the good of the country at heart; the greater good must come before what people have (narrowly) said they wanted, as the same people will not be so enthusiastic when they cannot get the ingredients for an evening meal, or when fuel doubles in price because the pound has collapsed.

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