Lorries waiting on a packed motorway

Brexit ahead: Stay in lane

Image credit: Getty Images

With weeks to go until the Brexit transition period ends on 1 January 2021, are the systems and infrastructure in place necessary to operate a border with the European Union smoothly?

Ideally, in a post-transition world, goods will continue to move freely between the UK and the EU and vice versa. But from January, many UK import and export businesses will be facing customs and border formalities for the first time in 40 years. Only those who trade outside the EU will have experience of negotiating customs and border controls. At the front line are the lorry drivers who move freight, including perishable fruit and vegetables and critical pharmaceutical products to and from continental Europe and beyond.

Alex Veitch, head of public policy for Logistics UK, the business group that represents the logistics sector, said in a delightfully understated way: “We have concerns about the readiness of key IT systems that will be used to manage border crossings, in particular Smart Freight.”

A September 2020 survey revealed that 50 per cent of Dover-bound drivers had not even heard of one of the key systems – Smart Freight, a traffic-management system designed to control access to Kent. Smart Freight is an online portal that drivers must use to check whether they have the correct paperwork required to enter the EU. Of the four IT systems being developed by the government, it is also essential for the issuing of the Kent Access Permit, which grants permission for lorries bound for Dover and Folkestone ports or Eurotunnel to enter the county.

Entry to Kent will be enforced by the police and Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras. It is not clear what will happen to lorries headed for Channel ports without the appropriate documentation but there has been a suggestion that advice centres will be set up at truck stops and service stations on the main access motorways. Alternatively, they might be sent to a clearance centre in Kent.

At the beginning of October, Smart Freight was still in a beta-testing phase and expected to be ready in April 2021. Two weeks later government is assuring industry that it will be ready in December 2020.

Another key system that has still to be made widely available for testing is HMRC’s Customs Declaration Service (CDS). One reason for the delay was the decision by HMRC to initially focus on bolstering the 27-year-old CHIEF (Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight) system, which was designed to handle 60 million freight movements a year. The new CDS will have to handle 400 million movements. User testing began in September and it continues to run in parallel with CHIEF.

Dover and Folkestone ports are extremely tight on space due to their position abutting the famous white cliffs, so trucks awaiting clearance to enter the EU and those entering the UK simply cannot be accommodated for customs inspection. This will have to happen in Kent at one of several proposed staging areas, including 27 acres of land in Ashford, a surprise purchase by the Department of Transport announced in July and earmarked for a holding area for up to 2,000 lorries.

This might sound like a lot, but at peak times Eurotunnel handles 4,000 trucks a day, and Dover 10,000, equivalent to 160 miles of end-to-end lorries.

The M20 motorway, which links outer London and the M25 London orbital with the Dover and Folkestone channel ports, carries 20 per cent of all UK trade with the continent. The M20 is 50.6 miles long.

The government maintains that business must prepare for the end of the Brexit transition period. It is, however, clear that this is a big ask as hauliers will have little time to prepare for the new reality because systems are delayed and must reflect the changes agreed.  

The French already have a working smart post-Brexit border system. Customs documentation is converted into a simple barcode prepared by the importer or exporter that matches the goods to the haulier, to be presented at the ferry or tunnel check-in.

Some in the haulage business are suggesting that the simplest solution would be to license the French software, created in preparation for a no-deal Brexit, in order to avoid severe delays and congestion in Kent. Another option, ruled out by Michael Gove, a government cabinet minister, is to prioritise traffic flows and go for a simplified set of customs procedures.

Whatever happens, there will almost certainly be enormous traffic congestion in Kent in the early months of 2021. A leaked letter from Gove, sent to logistics professionals in late September, warned that the government’s own reasonable worst-case scenario planning anticipates that 30-50 per cent of vehicles crossing the channel will not be compliant with the new regime on 1 January, resulting in delays of up to two days as the flow of traffic across the Straits of Dover falls to 60-80 per cent of normal levels. Queues of up to 7,000 trucks in Kent will result. Most informed observers expect disruptions to last at least until the end of February 2021.

Logistics UK penned an open response to the government on behalf of traders pointing out that while it is incumbent on traders to ensure that they have the correct paperwork, government must provide timely access to the delayed systems, in order for training and testing to be carried out. Both are essential to keep the flow of trade moving between the UK and the EU.

One beneficiary is likely to be the port of Tilbury on the Thames estuary, a competitor to the congested Channel ports, and closer to the vast London market. Forth Ports Group, the owner and operator of the site, has just opened a £250m development – Tilbury 2 – in partnership with P&O Ferries which facilitates driverless roll-on roll-off container movements linked to a new railhead. Tilbury 2 has none of the geographical drawbacks of the Channel ports.

This article has focused on the Channel ports but trade through Northern Ireland and into Ireland will face similar, if not greater, issues.

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