The “Sevington Inland Border Facility” is intended to prevent miles of truck congestion at the British border. Satellite images show, however, that the site has hardly been used so far. Have the planners hopelessly miscalculated the dimensions? What lies behind this and what role the shortage of truck drivers plays.
“Economy from above” is a collaboration between WirtschaftsWoche and LiveEO. This is a translation of the original article written in German by “Sascha Zastiral“. Access the original article here.
Driving southeast on the M20 freeway from London, you pass a modern-looking facility about half an hour before the port city of Dover. From the outside, it looks like a freeway service station at first glance. Only the high floodlight towers that reach to the horizon give an idea that it must be an extensive site.
A look at exclusive satellite images from LiveEO provides certainty: The “Sevington inland border facility” near the town of Ashford, completed at the beginning of the year, is so large that 130 Premier League soccer pitches would fit on it: 93 hectares. It is a steel and concrete testimony to Brexit, which also became a technical reality at the beginning of this year. This is one of the reasons why the facility is also called “Farage Garage” – after the right-wing populist Nigel Farage, without whom there would probably have been no Brexit. Up to 1,700 trucks can park here temporarily to wait for the onward journey to France, by car train in Folkestone or ferry via Dover.
Since Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has opted for a comparatively hard Brexit and the UK is no longer part of the European single market or the customs union, extensive border controls are now necessary again for goods traffic – for the first time in decades. To prevent kilometer-long truck traffic jams, London had the upstream border facility knocked out of the ground last year.
Anyone who thought the plans were excessive was proved wrong last December when France closed its border with Great Britain at short notice because of a new Covid variant. Thousands of truck drivers were stuck outside Dover. Traffic jams stretched for miles along the highway. Since the facility at Ashford was not yet ready, the authorities diverted thousands of trucks to an airfield, where 5,000 of them stood for days. Only after several days and hastily introduced Covid rapid tests for drivers did France reopen its border.
However, if you look at photos of the border installation from this year, you will notice that there are still only a few trucks to be seen. Did the planners hopelessly overestimate the dimensions? The fact that the parking lot has never even approached its limits since it was opened is, on the one hand, part of the concept. After all, it is supposed to function as an overflow basin in case there are delays again in the connections to Europe. And these can never be ruled out in times of a pandemic.
To avoid delays, the government also issued an additional regulation at the beginning of the year: From the start of the year, trucks bound for Europe were only allowed to enter the county of Kent, where Ashford, Dover, and Folkestone are located if they had previously obtained an access permit. To obtain this authorization, freight forwarders had to upload all the necessary documents to an Internet portal in advance. If everything was in order with the documents, the trucks received the “Kent Access Permit”.
The authorities took the requirement quite seriously. For example, figures from the Department for Transport show that by April – when the permits were withdrawn again – more than 2,000 truck drivers had been fined £300 for entering Kent unauthorized.
At this point, it was already clear that there would probably not be a mass rush to the border in the foreseeable future. This is because trade with the EU has fallen sharply since the beginning of the year due to the Brexit-related increase in bureaucracy. According to figures from statistics agency ONS, exports of British goods to the EU fell by 900 million pounds in July, compared with July 2018 – a 6.5 percent drop. This mainly affected medical and pharmacological products, for which different rules have applied since Brexit. Numerous British manufacturers and distributors report rapidly rising export costs and numerous customers on the European mainland that they have lost since the turn of the year.
The volume of British exports to Germany actually fell by 11 percent in the first half of this year. For the first time in 70 years, the UK could disappear from the list of Germany’s ten largest trading partners.
What places an additional burden on the British economy: Only exports from the UK to the EU are subject to additional controls and requirements. EU imports, on the other hand, continue to flow into the country largely unchecked. This may be why satellite images of the Eurotunnel truck terminal in Calais show that it is much busier.
Despite years of Brexit negotiations, the British authorities are only now slowly getting around to creating the necessary infrastructure for checking goods from the EU. Because this is still a long way off, London recently postponed controls on agricultural products, which should have begun gradually in October, until mid-2022.
This was not well received everywhere. Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation’s (FDF), said European manufacturers would get an advantage as a result. “It means there will be an asymmetrical relationship for UK companies, where we do all the export work and incur the costs, while EU companies have none of those controls or costs.”
Residents in Dover, therefore, breathed a sigh of relief at last. A similarly gigantic border crossing point to the one in Ashford was actually to be built next to the port city. Among other things, residents there complained about the lighting, which made the entire area shine like a soccer stadium. Instead of parking spaces for 1,200 trucks, there is now to be only a much smaller facility with 100 parking spaces in Dover. The Guardian reports that a customs official told residents that “lessons” had been learned from the Ashford facility. Those responsible apparently came to the conclusion that there was no need for another giant facility.
Either way, the UK should be spared truck congestion in the near future. On the contrary, the country currently has an estimated shortage of 100,000 truck drivers. Thousands of trucks are stuck in trucking companies’ parking lots every day. For months now, supermarket customers in many parts of the country have been finding their shelves increasingly empty because certain products could not be delivered. Some fast-food chains have run out of ingredients. The industrial sector complained of problems in the supply chains.
The already difficult situation was exacerbated in recent days when gas stations in many parts of the country suddenly ran out of gasoline due to the shortage of drivers. The result: panic buying and long lines.
If you ask government representatives about the reasons for the bottlenecks, you usually hear about problems in “global supply chains,” about a Europe-wide shortage of truck drivers, and about a “temporary” problem that has come about primarily because of the pandemic. Because of the fuel crisis, the government in London has now had the army put on standby. A statement said they should be prepared to supply gas stations.
However, Boris Johnson’s Brexit government is hiding one central and obvious reason for the problem: leaving the EU. This has not only led to tens of thousands of truck drivers from EU countries leaving the country in recent years. The strict visa restrictions that have been in place since the beginning of the year also prevent British trucking companies from quickly hiring drivers from the EU. Calls to the government from the business community to relax visa regulations were ignored by London for a long time.
Only a few days ago, the government buckled and announced that it would issue 5000 urgent visas for truck drivers from the EU and 5500 visas for workers in poultry factories. However, only temporarily and until Christmas.
Doubts that this will attract particularly large numbers of workers from EU countries to the country are warranted. Marco Digioia, head of the European Road Haulers Association, told the Guardian that truck driver wages in Europe are better than in the U.K. and that the EU has improved drivers’ working conditions. “I’m not sure how many would want to go back to the U.K.”