As strikes and struggles with immigrants continue to cause chaos in Calais, police in Kent have turned the M20 into a giant lorry park to hold trucks waiting to cross the English Channel. But what is the cost of Operation Stack?
For 24 of the past 40 days, the coast bound side of the M20 in Kent has been closed.
Thousands of lorries bound for cross-Channel ferries in Dover have sat dormant on the motorway, their journeys paused because of problems with striking workers and immigrants disrupting services to Calais.
Operation Stack has been used since 1996 whenever there is disruption to channel crossings, usually because of poor weather affecting shipping. But it is a costly exercise, both in terms of policing it and the knock-on costs to those either caught up in the queues or having to find other routes around Kent.
Between 1996 and the end of 2007 Operation Stack was implemented 95 times for a total of 145 days. And it has been used intermittently since 2007 but rarely for more than a few hours or a day or two at a time. But June and July of this year have seen “unprecedented” use of the tactic, according to the Freight Transport Association (FTA).
“It’s been a huge inconvenience before” says the FTA’s south east policy head Natalie Chapman.
“But the people of Kent and the haulage companies put up with it because it’s just for a short time.
“This year has changed that though.”
How Stack works
Operation Stack is co-ordinated by Kent Police and Highways England. The M20 is closed to house lorries bound for Dover, other traffic is diverted on other roads to get around Kent. It has three phases, closure of junctions eight to nine creates a park for up to 2,100 lorries, nine to 11 adds another 1,500 capacity and closure of the London-bound carriageway between eight and nine makes a total of 5,700.
Currently the M20 is closed from junctions eight to 11 coast bound.
In the three weeks up to 24 July, the operation had cost police £700,000. During peak times, Kent Police deploys 112 people per 24 hours to staff Stack. And the FTA estimates the cost to the haulage companies caught up in the operation to be £700,000 a day and £250m to the UK economy as a whole.
“The costs to haulage companies alone are multiple,” says Ms Chapman.
“You have the time of the drivers, some have spent up to 24 hours stuck in the queue, but you also have the cost of the loads themselves. Some of these loads, such as fresh food and pharmaceuticals, will be highly time sensitive and there have been quite a few loads worth hundreds of thousands of pounds which have had to be destroyed. Companies are also struggling to get their vehicles to and from their depots and express courier services, which have a reputation for quick delivery, are being delayed. And there are ramifications for the companies relying on these deliveries for their own business.
We can talk about long term solutions, such as using other temporary lorry parks, but we also need something now because there is a real fear that some of these businesses won’t make it through this summer. Even if they do they will have suffered great harm.”
Kent County Council, which only intervenes when welfare is an issue, has also been hit. In three days at the start of July the council, working with the Red Cross and Kent Voluntary Service, handed out 18,000 bottles of water – many donated by local companies – and 6,500 meals to help drivers cope with the excessive heat.
The cost of enforcing the operation should be covered nationally, according to Ann Barnes, Police and Crime Commissioner for Kent.
“It’s been going on for 20 years, until now it’s been looked upon as a small local problem but it’s not,” she said.
“It’s a chronic national problem that happens all the time. It should be funded nationally, the bill should not be picked up by Kent taxpayers.”
A spokesman for the Home Office said grants were available to police forces to help them deal with “significant and exceptional events”.
The government is well aware of the problems and has previously outlined plans to support the French authorities with £12m to go towards beefing up security around Calais.
A secure zone is also being created in France to protect lorries from migrants attempting to board the vehicles.
Solving the problems across the water is one thing, but is there a better way to run Operation Stack?
Talks have been held in the past about creating a temporary lorry park to remove the need to close the M20, but there has been little progress.
A contraflow that would allow more traffic to use the M20 when Stack has started has also been mooted.
Such a scheme was put into place in 2005, a year that saw the M20 closed for a total of 22 days by Stack, but the agency responsible for the motorway has rejected the idea this time around.
Highways England said the plan would pose an “unacceptable risk” to motorists.
The difficulties caused by Operation Stack incite only one emotion according to Ms Chapman.
“Frustration has been the word of the day for some time now.”