If there has been one subject guaranteed to make the blood boil throughout my period as Ashford’s MP it has been Operation Stack. Parking lorries on the M20 does not only cut the traffic artery of Kent, it means that traffic spills over on to roads that are not equipped to cope, with attendant misery caused to people going about the normal business.
In principle, then, I welcome any suggestions to alleviate Operation Stack. The Department of Transport’s latest plan, which is designed as an interim solution, is to create a contraflow which will allow lorries to be parked on some lanes of the motorway but allow traffic to flow both ways at all times. If it looks like a long crisis, a metal barrier will be introduced which will allow two lanes to run in both directions.
This is certainly better than nothing. It is an idea which has been proposed before, and has been rejected as unsafe by Highways England, but the use of better technology, and the hardening of the hard shoulder so that it can take running traffic, presumably makes this new scheme acceptable.
However my scepticism comes for two reasons. The first is that we have never been short of plans to alleviate Stack. The problem has always been getting the plans translated into practical action. Of course I hope never to see whether this plan works or not, because in an ideal world we will never need Operation Stack as trains and ferries run smoothly. But I am a realist, and expect that after a few years of relief, which we have enjoyed in recent times, Stack will one day be back with us. So this time the plan had better be practical.
My second area of doubt concerns the long-term solution. I am not impressed by the new consultation exercise which asks whether the permanent solution should be “an on- or off-road solution.” An on-road solution is not a solution. We had an off-road solution agreed and funded with a lorry park at Stanford West, but the Department for Transport messed up the consultation, which is why we are facing this mess again.
Even more depressingly, the Department says that the consultation will be on “broad potential solutions rather than specific sites.” I will be telling Ministers firmly that this sounds like the long grass yet again, and this will not be acceptable.