English villages wake up to find they're Brexit's new border
SEVINGTON, England (AP) - Four years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Brexit can still seem abstract. But in the county known as the Garden of England it is literally taking shape.
Just beyond the ancient oaks and yew trees that surround medieval St. Mary's Church in the village of Sevington, bulldozers, dump trucks, and cement mixers swarm noisily across a field. They are chewing land to create part of the UK's new border with the European Union - a customs clearance depot that can hold up to 2,000 trucks.
Nobody has asked permission from the local people, and even in this Brexit supportive area, the disruption weighs on support for Britain's break with the EU.
"The first thing anyone knew about it was when a sign popped up saying the walkways were closed," said Sharon Swandale, whose home in the village of Mersham was a 20-minute walk from Sevington. With the road closed for construction work, it is now almost 6.4 kilometers.
That county, Kent, voted 60-40% to leave the EU in the 2016 UK referendum, but Swandale said the visions of truck stops and customs depots are not particularly important to them.
"That was never part of the actual sales and marketing for Brexit," she said.
The two affluent villages of Sevington and Mersham are 15 miles from the Channel Tunnel to France and 20 miles from the UK's largest ferry port in Dover. Both routes move 4 million trucks a year filled with groceries and all sorts of other important goods.
These goods moved back and forth freely while Britain was part of the EU's single market and customs union. Britain left the bloc's political structures in January and will take an economic hiatus when a transition period ends on December 31st. This means that the UK must establish a customs border with the EU with 27 nations, its largest trading partner.
Opponents of Brexit say it is a waste of money and effort that will harm businesses on both sides. For the supporters, everything is part of taking back control of the country's borders and trade.
But everyone agrees that this means new bureaucratic work and customs declarations and inspections are required. If the UK and EU fail to sign a free trade agreement before the end of the year, tariffs will be imposed on many goods, creating more disruption, bureaucracy and costs.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government was reluctant to reveal details of its border plans. However, last month it admitted that its "reasonable worst-case scenario" included "7,000 tied trucks in Kent and associated maximum delays of up to two days".
The government's plans to limit the disruption include converting parts of a motorway into temporary parking for trucks and introducing a “Kent Access Pass” - essentially a pass that truckers who drive into the EU from other parts of the UK into Kent have to enter.
The Sevington site is intended for customs controls and could also act as a "temporary traffic management facility" - a parking lot - for trucks in the event of delays at the border, the government said.
The 27 hectare field is one of ten locations across the country earmarked for potential border infrastructure. Under the power, the government has undertaken to buy and build without first consulting local authorities or residents.
"As of now, no local resident has seen the plans," said Rick Martin, chairman of Sevington Parish Council, adding that locals are concerned about the stall and the impact the location has on property prices.
"People are pretty baffled at the moment about what it will look like when 1,000 trucks are parked across the street," he said.
Sevington and Mersham are ancient settlements mentioned in the 1086 census known as the Domesday Book, but the residents cannot be said to reject modern life. You already live with the buzz of traffic on the M20 motorway that runs through the area and the sound of trains rushing towards the Channel Tunnel at 300 km / h.
This makes them even more determined to preserve the remaining rural character of their communities.
With the support of local politicians, the villagers are trying to limit the damage by saving an adjacent field that has also been bought by the government but is not yet earmarked for development. It's the last green space between them and the sprawling town of Ashford nearby.
"It would be the perfect place to save as a green buffer between all development here and the village," said Swandale, a member of the Village Alliance, a local campaign group.
The construction has already chased away the larks that used to live on the future customs site. Swandale says preserving the other field could save crested newts and dormice and the trails used by hikers, cyclists and horseback riders.
"It is taking control back," she said, repeating the Brexiteer slogan. "It does this for the local people, it uses it. It plants trees to reduce carbon and increases biodiversity. ... It would go a long way to mitigate this development."
The British still don't know whether New Years Day 2021 will bring the government's worst-case scenario or a smoother exit. Talks on a trade deal between the UK and the EU have stalled over fishing rights and rules for fair competition. At a summit this week, EU heads of state and government will examine whether a breakthrough is possible. There are only weeks left to seal a deal if it is to be ratified by the end of the year.
Paul Bartlett, a Conservative Kent County Council member who lives next door to the huge construction site, admits the customs office on his doorstep came as a surprise. As a staunch supporter of Brexit, however, he is determined to see the positive side of the new customs office.
"We need jobs," he said after the coronavirus pandemic plunged the UK into recession. "I hope we have 300 jobs and there is a good apprenticeship system in place where young people can sign up and develop a career for themselves.
"It's a beautiful part of the country to live in and sometimes you have to take the rough with the smooth."
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