Dr Susan Kenyon explains how lessons learnt from operation stack needs to be used for a county-wide transport plan in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The government’s no-deal Brexit border planning has, thus far, reduced Kent to a through-route for goods and travellers. For communities in Kent, this is deeply worrying.

We are more than a through-route. We are a community of 1.8million people, who need to move. When we can’t move, we can’t access education, employment, health and social care, food, family and friends.

The Strategic Road Network (SRN) through Kent is limited, in terms of length and capacity. Any disruption to the flow of vehicles through Kent, to the west into England or the east into Europe, very quickly leads to congestion on motorways and trunk roads. This, in turn, leads to traffic leaking onto the Local Road Network (LRN), spreading congestion from the SRN into our towns and villages.

In the event of a no-deal, at 11pm on 29th March, the regulations that govern the entrance and exit of goods and people from the UK will change. Increased checks will slow the flow of people and goods across our borders. Previous experience tells us that delays at these borders very quickly leads to gridlock on Kent’s roads, with destructive effects for people in Kent’s communities.

In 2015, border closures resulted in a devastating reduction in accessibility to key services for local communities.

Within hours, the bottle necks at our ports resulted in traffic jams on our major roads, which quickly led to traffic jams on our local roads. Because of this, people simply could not get to where they needed to go.

Within days, our communities were suffering from the consequences of this. Care workers were not able to get to those they look after. Patients were not able to get to doctor’s surgeries. Hospital appointments were missed. People could not get to shops to buy food. Employees could not get to work. Pupils could not get to school, nor students to Higher Education. Parents lived with the fear that they would not be able to get home to look after their children.

The increase in HGV use of local roads, plus increased non-designated HGV parking in our towns and villages, also had negative impacts on the living environment. This included community bifurcation, fear of road traffic incidents, fear of crime, alongside local environmental impacts, including noise, waste, pollution, air quality and potential localised climate change.

Could this happen again?

If our borders are slowed, or blocked, after Brexit, the logical assumption is that it is inevitable, that this will happen again. Astonishingly, however, we do not yet have any reliable studies telling us what the impacts of Brexit border changes for communities in Kent will be.

Three small studies have reported gridlock on specific roads on the SRN, focusing on the impact on through-times from the border crossings in the east to exit in the west.

Political concern has focused on the impact of this on through-traffic carrying time-limited products, including vegetables and medicines, or products for just-in-time manufacturing, to the rest of the UK and Ireland. However, we desperately need to understand the impacts of congestion on all roads in Kent. We need to understand the impacts not only on access by car, but also by public transport and on foot. We then need to understand the impacts of congestion across Kent upon accessibility for Kent’s communities. Will children be able to get to school, employees to work, carers to the people that they look after? 

With information, we could plan to travel by alternative routes or modes, at different times, or to different locations. We could arrange community-focused solutions, for example co-ordinating medical appointments with others in the local area and car sharing to the surgery, co-ordinating delivery of goods/medicines, co-ordinating work at home days to enable collection of children from school. We could develop contingency plans to ensure that care can continue, if carers cannot get to those they care for. We could plan for short-term virtual delivery of key services.

All of these are possible short-term solutions to ensure that communities in Kent can continue to thrive.

An important step in the longer term is to create a transport model: mapping how traffic behaves under normal conditions, before adjusting key variables – in this case, congestion and road closures – to predict what will happen to the road network in different situations.

A whole-county model will take time to develop. A more immediate solution would be to study the communities that we know will be affected first, considering KCC’s future plans for Operation Brock, alongside who was affected before, during Operation Stack.

With information from such a study, we can develop contingency accessibility plans, to ensure that our communities can continue to function in the event of no-deal Brexit border issues.

We need to plan to maintain access for Kent’s communities, in the event of a no-deal. We need to plan now.

A full version of this blog is available on the Politics and International Relations blog.

Dr Susan Kenyon is a Faculty Director of Learning and Teaching. She has studied transport and travel behaviour since 1998 and has published extensively in the area of transport, accessibility and social exclusion.