Previous Section Index Home Page

I welcome the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy). As ever, it was thoughtful and she raised two very important issues. I want to deal with one of them, which relates to
1 Feb 2007 : Column 463
her constituency concerns and the naval base review. We have been investing in the Royal Navy—despite what was said by the hon. Member for New Forest, East—in order to provide modern and effective ships, and it is only right that we review naval bases to make sure that we have the right infrastructure—no more and no less—to support the Royal Navy of the future and to ensure that we get the most out of the money that we have for defence. The reason for that is quite simple: to ensure that the resources are rightly focused on the front line. Surplus capacity and activity drains resources from the front line. Getting that balance right has always been a driver in defence, and is perhaps even more so now. I know that my hon. Friend understands that point and would not argue against it.

These are difficult and weighty matters and it is important to have as much information as possible to support our decision making. The team undertaking the naval base review is ensuring that local aspects—the point that my hon. Friend made—as well as defence needs are taken into account. The review will help to determine the infrastructure that we must retain, and what, if anything, we can do without. There will be a lot of discussion and debate about the outcome, but that will not be because of a lack on input from people such as my hon. Friend, who has put together a very cohesive case on her constituency’s behalf.

The hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) raised a number of issues and I shall deal with just one—the coroner’s court. There has been an unacceptable backlog of inquests at the Oxfordshire coroner’s court, but that has begun to be addressed through the work of the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has direct responsibility for such matters. Three additional assistant deputy coroners have been appointed to assist the Oxfordshire coroner in dealing with the backlog of operations-related inquests, primarily on deaths in Iraq. Some 15 inquests into the deaths of service personnel killed on Operation Telic have been scheduled for hearing between 1 January and the end of May this year. That means that most inquests relating to deaths of service personnel before 2006 that are in the jurisdiction of the Oxfordshire coroner will have been held. The DCA is taking steps to avoid a future backlog of inquests. The criticisms have been well made in the past and have been well made again today. We all recognise the vital importance of getting matters right.

The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) had a cross-Chamber discussion with Members about his analysis of his party’s policy on withdrawal from
1 Feb 2007 : Column 464
Iraq. I shall read what he said with interest—it is probably better to read it than to try to recollect it now—and compare it with the views expressed by the leader of his party, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). We will doubtless return to the issue. I do not want to labour the point, and we should not make too much of a party political point out of what he said. However and as I pointed out, the hon. Gentleman seemed to be coming my way, and toward this Government’s view about the conditions-based circumstances that will lead us to reach a conclusion on the various developments that must take place in Iraq in the coming months.

Nick Harvey: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Last week, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) outlined a proposed framework for a staged withdrawal from Iraq, which he said should culminate by 31 October. We were taking the Government at their word about handing over the provinces in the spring. The framework allows three months to negotiate with our allies and six to get out. That seems pretty flexible to me—nobody said that anything had to happen on 1 May that could not happen on 30 April or 2 May. However, I leave the Minister to his reading.

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman should. He has been away from the Chamber for some time, and I would have thought that he could come back with a better answer than that. However, we will deal with all these issues in due course.

Given that this debate is about defence in the world, I want to talk about the role played by our forces in sub-Saharan Africa and the very considerable contribution that we are making there. An example is Sierra Leone, and although there is still some way to go, our contribution there is a major success. Although a settlement still has to be reached in respect of Kosovo, our contribution in the Balkans has also been a significant success. Some 600 personnel are in Bosnia, and that figure should drop very quickly, assuming that agreement is reached——I think that that will happen, because we are pushing for it—within the EU on the future position on Bosnia. That will be another indication of significant and important success.

As others have said, we owe a major debt to our armed forces. Members of Parliament, both civilians and those who have served in Her Majesty’s armed forces and who now serve in the House, all make such statements and we genuinely mean them. We owe a big debt of honour to our armed forces and we really do recognise that they are the best in the world.

It being Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

1 Feb 2007 : Column 465

Operation Stack

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Jonathan Shaw.]

6 pm

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I am grateful for the chance to speak about the subject that most enrages not only my constituents but people all over east and north Kent—including, I suspect, the constituents not only of the Minister but of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) who is the duty Whip. I imagine that their constituents regularly get as angry as my constituents do about being caught up in the backwash of Operation Stack.

Operation Stack is the use of the M20 as a lorry park whenever there are problems getting lorries across the channel. It must be the worst piece of emergency transport planning anywhere in Britain. We all accept that motorways can be closed if there is a serious accident or if weather conditions dictate. But I am not aware of any other motorway that is regularly closed as a matter of deliberate policy to address a problem that has nothing to do with driving conditions.

The closures are becoming increasingly common. In the 20 years since Operation Stack was first introduced, phase 1, which involves closing the motorway at the end, between junctions 11 and 12, has been implemented 74 times. Phase 2—closure between junctions 8 and 9 around my constituency in Ashford—has happened 17 times. But last year it was invoked six times, and it has happened three times so far this year already. I can speak with some feeling about recent incidents because on Thursdays I drive home down the M20 and leave at junction 8, as I will tonight. It takes about an hour and a quarter—or not, if there is a queue of lorries tailing back from junction 8 waiting to be stacked. Closing the motorway should be absolutely the last resort. In this bizarre policy, it is the first resort.

The combination of the notorious French attitude to industrial relations, which involves closing the port of Calais at the first available excuse, and the weather in winter, means that unless something is done, this policy will be a never-ending misery. I am not using exaggerated language. I could fill my entire time in this debate—and probably the Minister’s—reading out letters and e-mails from my own constituents explaining how the closure of the M20 has affected them. Inevitably, it clogs up every main road in east Kent as people try to avoid it. People take hours to get to work. Appointments are missed. Contracts are lost. Business grinds to a halt. If the Minister thinks that I am exaggerating, I refer him to the KentOnline website, where he can see dozens of examples of what happens. I have studied the website to learn the current feelings about Operation Stack, and even I was surprised by the number and vehemence of the complaints about it. That website is one of many with competing petitions to the effect that it must stop immediately.

Operation Stack is not just a personal inconvenience for those involved. It has a damaging effect on the whole economy of the county. A survey for the Federation of Small Businesses in Kent showed that levels of dissatisfaction with the road network are significantly higher in Kent even than in the rest of the
1 Feb 2007 : Column 466
country. The federation has calculated that the cost to its members in Kent alone is £10 million a year, and the overall effect on Kent businesses will of course be much larger.

In that context, I remind the Minister of the need for incoming investment to provide jobs for the people who will move to the 31,000 new houses planned for my constituency in the next 25 years, or to the many thousands of other houses that it is hoped will be built in Kent. The plans just for Ashford assume, grandly, that 28,000 new jobs will be created. In an increasingly competitive world, we need to entice businesses to come to Kent. Closing the motorway for unspecified periods at unexpected but regular intervals, and doing so more and more frequently, is exactly the wrong way to encourage new investment in the county.

On top of the economic damage being done, there is an effect on the Kent police. Like many forces, they are extremely stretched. The chief constable of Kent is Mike Fuller, who has called the existing method of dealing with the backlog of trucks waiting to cross the channel a “huge drain” on police resources. He said:

In the past three years, Operation Stack has cost the Kent police more than £232,000 in overtime and extra equipment costs alone. The chief constable has said:

That desperation is echoed by many other people.

The problem is getting worse every year, as freight traffic increases. Some 2.3 million trucks use the ferries at Dover every year, and roughly another 1.2 million use the channel tunnel as a freight route. In 2006, the amount of freight going through Dover rose by about 18 per cent., and that is expected to double over the next 20 years. If the problem is bad now, we can expect it to get much worse in the years to come—unless we do something about it now.

Before I move on to the solutions being proposed, I want to raise one other matter—the sheer time that it has taken for anyone to get a grip on the problem. The letters in my file go back as far as 1999, and they make depressing reading for students of public policy and governance in this country. Over the years, the police have said that they are doing what they are told to do, the county council that it is doing what the Government demands, and the district councils that they have neither the power nor the money to solve the problem. The Department for Transport and the Highways Agency have said that Operation Stack is indeed is a problem, and that they will deal with it some day. The traffic stops, but the buck keeps moving.

That is why I am delighted that Kent county council has taken the initiative of looking for some sites, one of which would be suitable for parking some 2,000 lorries. That would make a significant difference to the need for Operation Stack. The council is working closely with the relevant borough councils of Ashford, Dover, Shepway and Maidstone, and with the channel corridor partnership.

As the Minister will be aware, those borough councils are vitally interested in the matter, as there is a longer-term need to provide permanent lorry parking in that part of the world. Many areas, including parts
1 Feb 2007 : Column 467
of Ashford, are regularly blighted by unofficial and sometimes illegal parking. One of the beneficial side effects of having a lorry park that could cope with Operation Stack would be a partial alleviation of that longer-term problem.

However, that is not the main focus of my plea to the Minister this evening. I know that he is aware of the problems associated with the motorway network and the freight routes through Kent. I was glad to see his honesty and straightforwardness when he admitted to the Select Committee on Transport that the approach to the port of Dover was one of the elements of this country’s transport system that we have not got right. Everyone agrees about that, but it is a longer-term problem. I am talking about an immediate problem that needs an immediate solution.

I hope that the Minister is encouraged by the work that has been done so far by the councils, and especially by the helpful work on technological advances. I understand that it is now not necessary to put down large amounts of concrete over green fields to create a temporary truck stop. We can use underground mesh to strengthen the turf, which allows the grass to continue to grow but provides a strong enough surface for a lorry park. We need to take environmental considerations into account. This new method, which would not have been available some years ago, offers a practical way forward which will minimise some of the inevitable environmental damage, and therefore opposition, that arises from setting up a new lorry park.

What am I asking for this evening? I want the Minister to commit his Department to doing everything in its power to push through an alternative to Operation Stack as soon as possible. The current feasibility study into the sites identified by Kent county council will take only a few weeks. I hope and expect that the councils will also receive some positive help from the South East England Development Agency, which is rightly taking an interest in all this. Its duty is to foster economic development throughout the region, and without a solution to Operation Stack, steady prosperity and economic development in Kent will be much more difficult to achieve.

In the end, all the work of SEEDA, the county council and the district councils will not create a solution unless central Government become actively involved. Clearly, on a practical level any possible solution will require access roads and will need to complement the existing road network. Equally clearly, the funding of any new arrangement will need at the very least Department for Transport blessing, even if it comes, as I suspect it can, from existing programmes. I hope that the Minister can commit himself to more than warm words when he responds. I hope that he will commit himself and his Department to working with Kent county council and the other public bodies and, most of all, commit his Department to a leading role. I fear that without an active and leading role, the solution will again fall into the category of something that is too difficult and “not my problem”, which is where this has lain for far too long.

The Minister will be aware that 2007 has so far been an appallingly frustrating year for those of us who
1 Feb 2007 : Column 468
regularly use the M20. Let us at least go through this year in the hope and expectation that it will be the last year that we will have to endure Operation Stack. If we can achieve that, and if he can play a positive role in achieving it, everyone involved will give thanks, from the road haulage industry to my constituents, his constituents and the thousands of others who use the roads in east Kent. We cannot carry on like this, and I hope that the Minister can assure us that we will not have to.

6.13 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) for raising this important issue and I congratulate him on securing the debate. We are having a Kent night here since the Government Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) is a Kent Member, as am I.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman realises this, but as well as being the roads Minister, I am the road safety Minister and I have noted that he can get to junction 8 on the M20 in an hour and a quarter at this time on a Thursday night. I think that I shall be asking our chief constable to keep an eye open for him.

As a Kent Member, as well as roads Minister, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about Operation Stack, which has a major impact on east Kent. I am as anxious as he is to find a solution for constituency and ministerial reasons. I certainly hope that I can offer him more than warm words tonight.

Since the beginning of December, Operation Stack has been implemented five times, mainly because of the severe weather. That has led to a high level of non-HGV diversionary traffic on local roads and disrupted journeys for many people. Indeed, I have been caught up in it myself, so I understand the frustration first-hand.

The origins of Operation Stack go back to the seamen’s strike of 1988 when the M20 was closed between junctions 9 and 13 for about 14 weeks—the M20 between junctions 8 and 9 was not open at the time. However, that use of the M20 was not formalised and before 1997 the normal emergency traffic management plan involved allowing lorries and cars to park anywhere, especially on the A20, although many used local roads—I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would not want us to return to that arrangement. Because we recognised the serious disruption that was being caused for local residents and businesses, a system was developed to provide emergency parking on the M20 for heavy goods vehicles; in essence, that was the Operation Stack that operates nowadays.

Operation Stack is for emergencies, and the decision to implement is taken by Kent police who invoke their emergency powers. Its three phases can together provide space for a total of 7,400 trucks that would otherwise be parked on unsuitable roads. I am told that the police have never had to use phase 3, although I understand that it came close to being implemented during the recent severe weather.

Over the years improvements have been made to the use of Operation Stack. A ticketing regime has been introduced by transport operators, whereby lorries are
1 Feb 2007 : Column 469
sequentially ticketed and queued for boarding on the closed motorway, which helps to prevent lorries that try to avoid stacking on the M20 from clogging up less suitable roads. At Easter 2005, when Stack had to be implemented an exceptional number of times, owing to berthing problems at Calais, the Highways Agency and the police trialled new contraflow arrangements between junctions 8 and 9 on the northbound carriageway, allowing lorries to be stacked on the southbound carriageway while also allowing other southbound traffic to use part of the northbound carriageway to go south.

Although it took a long time to set up the cones, which proved resource-intensive for the police and the Highways Agency contractors, the use of a contraflow system was considered a success in terms of better traffic management. However, the system normally takes too long to set up with conventional coning to be useful, given the short notice that we usually have of the need for Operation Stack, and for safety reasons the police do not recommend a system based on cones. As a result, studies were carried out on the possibility of using an American system, the quickchange moveable barrier—QMB—to implement speedier contraflow arrangements. The system is being used at the A2-M2 roadworks in Kent, where our joint constituents can see it working effectively in practice.

Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman may have implied, I emphasise that we have not been complacent. We have not been sitting around doing nothing; we have constantly looked for ways to improve Operation Stack—how traffic is managed and how we can ensure compliance of trucks in parking on the M20, where they can be managed, rather than on other roads. In addition, the Highways Agency is working in partnership with the local authorities to review the effects of Operation Stack and is considering what improvements might be possible, both in the short and medium term, to reduce the delay both for cross-channel and local travellers.

In the short term, before the end of March this financial year, two improvements to setting up traffic management for Operation Stack will be installed. A new permanent sign will be mounted on the verge approaching the commencement of the traffic management arrangements for Operation Stack. The sign will display “Workforce in Road - Slow Down”, and a warning will be given to drivers by the use of amber flashing beacons. That will help to protect the work force and the police while they install lane closures when Stack is being implemented. The time taken to set up the traffic management arrangements will also be significantly reduced by using black guidelines—set in the road surface—to allow traffic management to be implemented quickly on the correct alignment.

Next Section Index Home Page