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In the medium term, the Highways Agency is making progress in the use of the quickchange moveable barrier, which I mentioned earlier, and now has operational experience of this innovative technique. It was used effectively on a scheme on the A21 last autumn and it has now been adopted at a major project in Kent on the A2-A282. The system is proving beneficial in reducing the length of the contract period, with resulting benefits to all road
users. Given the novelty of the system in this country, the Highways Agency has done well to get it trialled so quickly.
Design work has been commissioned for central reserve works to accommodate the QMB and for a storage facility for the QMB machine. That is part of phase 1 of Operation Stack. I expect to see detailed costings and information on the economics of proceeding with the scheme in the next month or so. We are considering a QMB to speed up contraflow arrangements, but in addition, the Highways Agency is examining ways of introducing a package of low-cost traffic management works on the A20 near Dover to ease flow from the M20 to the docks, and it is working with Dover district council and Kent county council on that. Such improvements could include variable message signs, static signs, white lining, local realignment of roundabouts and phased signalling.
The Highways Agency, in partnership with Kent county council and Medway council, is conducting a county-wide variable message sign study. Lack of accurate information is a cause of customer dissatisfaction, according to the Highways Agencys road user satisfaction survey. The study will assess motorists requirements for improved information on both the strategic and the local road network. Discussions are taking place between the Highways Agency and Kent county council to secure operational agreements. That will allow the more effective use of tactical diversions between the M2 and the M20 strategic routes, using the A229 and the A249. Those agreed diversions could be used for Operation Stack, or for any other major incident.
The Highways Agency is working with partners to find short and medium-term solutions to Operation Stack, but as the hon. Gentleman says, we need to find a long-term solution. On the longer term, three or four proposals are being discussed with developers, the district councils and Kent county council. The Government office for the south-east is a supporting partner in the discussions on identifying and bringing forward proposals. In November 2005, it published a paper on the issue, and I understand that it was well received. It was part of the push to bring together all interested parties to determine how Operation Stack could be replaced.
During 2006, the channel corridor partnership, which includes officials from the Government office for the south-east, held the lorries in Kent summit. I understand that the summit led to a delegation of Kent partners lobbying the European Commission for recognition of Operation Stack as a trans-European issue. The Department recently commissioned a study to assess whether there is likely to be a business case for the private sector providing a large, multi-use lorry park that could potentially be used for Operation Stack. We hope to have the results by the summer. However, the success of any solution would depend on the role played by the local planning authority and other stakeholders. Potential developers are coming up with proposals that are being investigated and explored. At the moment, four sites are being discussed, and they should be assessed within the context of the study.
From comments in the Kent media, and having checked with Kent officers, I understand that Kent
county council is urgently looking for off-road sites. We will receive any ideas that it produces with interest, and will look at them closely. I promise the hon. Gentleman that I will take its ideas seriously and that we will actively investigate them, but I hope that he understands that the site has to be acquired and made accessible to heavy trucks in difficult weather conditions. There is also the matter of building slip roads and other roads leading to the site. Those are not cheap options, and we have to find a cost-effective solution.
I have asked my officials to consider how we might incentivise lorries to find official parking outside Kent as part of a distributed Operation Stack. Perhaps we could encourage lorries to go to lorry parks elsewhere in the country before they even reach Kent, and issue them with tickets in those remote sites, so that when Operation Stack is eventually lifted, they can make the journey to Kent and get on the boat at the time specified on the ticket.
Damian Green: I hope that the Minister will go on to say that there will be some sort of signalling arrangement to provide the information. That would counter the slight chill in the blood that I felt when he mentioned that one of the improvements might be a permanent signalling arrangement to warn people that Operation Stack was about to start. I do not think that anyone in Kent would find that very encouraging. If he promised some kind of signalling arrangement to enable the lorries to be distributed across the country, and not just across the county, people would think it a step forward.
I entirely agree. We have to look at that issue. If we can stop people coming to Kent in the first place when Operation Stack is on, that will make the situation much easier for us to manage. The problem is, of course, that at the moment even if we got the message to a lorry driver that Operation Stack was in place, he or she would have to ask themselves how they would get their place on the boat to get over the channel if they did not come to Kent. They get their place on the boat by coming and queuing up in Operation Stack. Clearly, at the moment they are incentivised to come to Kent and cause us a problem. It would be a matter of, first, finding a way of getting messages to them to tell them not to come to Kent,
and, secondly, making sure that, wherever they decide to go to, they can access ticketing arrangements to make sure that they retain their place on the ferry or train. These are complicated issues, but I entirely agree that it is an important matter that we have to focus on.
I have mentioned working in partnership several times. Let me be absolutely clear. I entirely welcome Kent county councils recent initiative to look into the matter. What I find a little more difficult to deal with is the impression that it gives that the Government have been sitting back doing nothing and finally the council is having to come over the hill like the cavalry to save matters. It has always been a responsibility of Kent county council, as a stakeholder in the issue, to step up to the plate and help us to find a solution and I am grateful that it is doing that now. However, it should not give the impression that it has somehow had to pick up the baton because everybody else has dropped it. We have all been trying to work to find a solution to the matter. If the council has practical ideas about how we can deliver that solution, I welcome its co-operation and we will certainly work closely with it to explore its ideas. However, the Highways Agency and central Government are not able to take planning decisions and there are some important and tricky planning issues that will have to be resolved if a permanent off-road solution to Operation Stack is to be found. It will be a matter for Kent county council and the district councils concerned to co-operate with us in getting those necessary planning permissions.
Let us look forward, however. Let us assume that we are now all determined to work together to solve this matter. Certainly, the Government have always been determined to try to resolve it. I am absolutely determined that we will find a solution to it. There is no easy solution to the problem that is Operation Stack. Local authorities, the port and the channel tunnel, as well as the Government, all have a role to play in finding the answer. We will not find a solution any quicker by ducking our responsibilities and blaming other stakeholders. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman in that respect. We must all play a part and I give him a firm commitment that I will ensure that the Government are an active partner in the process and that we will find a solution as quickly as is humanly possible.