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The Impact of Calais on Traffic in Kent Is a Symptom of Long-term Issues That Demand Better Than Short-term Fixes by Government

14/08/2015 10:57 BST | Updated 12/08/2016 10:59 BST

It's not only in politics that a week is a long time. Last week our TV screens were dominated by scenes long queues of stationary lorries stacked up along the M20; of holiday makers stuck in jams; of residents unable to get out of nearby Kent villages and of local businesses losing trade with customers unable to get to them and orders unable to get out. All of them victims of a perfect storm of an industrial dispute closing terminals in Calais and the migrant crisis coinciding with peak holiday travel and an economic recovery boosting cross-channel freight.

This week migration still dominates the headlines but the traffic chaos which hit Kent has become old news. Indeed, when I met with representatives of Eurotunnel, Kent County Council and the Freight Transport Association at the tunnel entrance in the middle of last week, traffic was already flowing freely again. Ministers will no doubt say that the fact that things returned to normal so quickly shows the success of the Operation Stack during peak periods of the crisis. The Government may also argue that their last minute decision to use the Manston airport site as an emergency lorry park had the hold ups continued showed that they were on top of things.

But Ministers should pause before they pat themselves on the backs too glowingly. Credit should indeed be given where it is due. Kent Police, local authorities, Eurotunnel and the public and private sector freight agencies involved on the ground have worked hard to keep things moving as far as they could, and to provide portaloos and water along the M20 when they couldn't. But that does not alter the fact that in the meantime, the freight industry was losing £750,000 a day. Proactive intervention by Government was woefully slow. It came eventually but by then Ministers had started to resemble a deregulated bus service. You did not see one for ages and then they all came at once. Still, the immediate crisis was averted - for now.

The point is that the chaos on Kent's roads could happen again at any time. The causes have not gone away. Operation Stack was designed to address temporary and unusual snarl ups. The combination of challenges now faced need to be addressed by long-term thinking with future proofing built in. The bolt-on extra contingency plan of a lorry park at Manston, 50 miles away from the M20 is a far cry from what is required. However you look at it, most cross channel traffic will continue to funnel down limited capacity routes to Eurotunnel and the ports. It is not a local problem for Kent to resolve but the kind of nationally strategic issue which Labour's Infrastructure Commission could have started to address had we won the election. Labour losing the election does not mean the need for something like this has gone away.

In the meantime, the European Gateway Strategic Delivery Group which brings together public and private sector agencies involved on the ground has submitted to government a report on some of the initiatives which could better keep Kent moving. It deserves serious consideration, a timetable from government for implementing those proposals which can be agreed and reasons for those which cannot be agreed. It must not simply gather dust until the next time the traffic grinds to a halt. Some of what the report contains and other proposals which partners told me about last week could be done pretty quickly - from smarter signing to infrastructure works around key junctions would improve mobility and safety too.

The will has to be there across government - in BIS, the Treasury and the Home Office just as much as in the Department for Transport and CLG.

Long term thinking also needs to be shown by Ministers in Britain's response to the migration crisis. The effects of the crisis can be seen in the desperate actions of desperate people who have reached Calais, but its causes are to be found thousands of miles away. Ministers should drop the inflammatory soundbites that demonise the desperate and solve nothing. The UK must take a lead in promoting the coordinated international response that is required, working with France, the EU and UNHCR in Calais, and in tackling the roots of conflict and poverty in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.