The sunlit uplands of Brexit haven’t quite arrived yet for the people of Kent, who voted overwhelmingly in 2016 to leave the European Union.
With days to go until the transition period ends – an 11-month period where the UK was still subject to EU rules, despite leaving the bloc – the county in southeast England that is geographically the closest to mainland Europe is the chaotic ground zero for what actually going it alone on the world stage could mean.
Residents face a terrible cocktail of miles of gridlocked traffic, delays to COVID vaccine deliveries, school closures, giant, thudding construction sites springing up on their doorstep without consultation, and the lingering smell of actual piss.
For Tony Bessent, the daily reality is a reminder that reeks: he’s unable to work in his garden because of the overriding smell of urine. “They chuck two-litre Coke bottles full of piss straight onto the roadside,” says the 77-year-old retiree living on the outskirts of Dover in Kent, who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. “I like to work on my garden and in my workshop. But you can really smell the fumes of it.”
It comes from thousands of truck drivers who, every day, are now stuck waiting in line along the A20, a key road that passes directly by Bessent’s house on the journey from London to Dover’s port, which processes 4 million lorries a year. As Britain lurches toward independence, last-minute trial border checks have seen those queues multiply.
In September, the government revealed that its “reasonable worst-case scenario” involved “7,000 port-bound trucks in Kent” and delays of up to two days. In response to severe transport delays, transport minister Rachel Maclean said there were plans for portaloos to be installed across the county. It’s led to campaigners dubbing Kent, proudly marketed as the Garden of England, the “Toilet of England”, with a protest group renaming signs at 27 entry roads across the 90-mile county border last month.
It’s an unhappy picture seen across Kent, which voted by 60% to 40% to leave the EU in Britain’s 2016 referendum.
Residents of Sevington, a historic village of 300 people recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, first heard of the decision to turn the wheat field surrounding their homes into a 66-acre, post-Brexit customs clearance depot on social media. It was only a few days later that they received official letters explaining the “Inland Border Facility”, with a capacity for up to 2,000 lorries, would be built right on their doorstep.
Around 15 miles from the Channel Tunnel to France, and 20 miles from Britain’s biggest ferry port at Dover, the Sevington site – nicknamed the “Farage Garage”, and one of ten locations around the country selected for border infrastructure – was claimed under powers the government gave itself to buy and build without consulting local authorities or residents first.
The lack of consultation of local communities has contributed to the image of a slapdash approach, despite the UK having more than four years to prepare for Brexit. “They haven’t communicated properly with anybody. There’s been no consultation,” says Janet Oakley-Hills, a parish councillor for Sevington South.
Oakley-Hills says the 24-hour floodlights used on the site – which might now be completed up to two months late, at the end of February, with authorities blaming heavy rains – are so bright that the upper floor of her house is completely illuminated at night. “You can see everything without turning on a light,” she adds.
Construction rumbles on with the constant gnaw of bulldozers, forklift machinery and cement mixers in the background. The 800-year-old St Mary’s Church, surrounded by ancient oaks and yew trees, is at the heart of the upheaval in the region. “My daughter grew up looking out onto the golden wheat fields as a combine harvester went by,” says one local resident, who asked to remain anonymous. “That’s been destroyed.”
Constant noise and light pollution, environmental damage, roads overwhelmed by traffic and falling property values are already having an impact.
“It’s a blight on our countryside,” says Sharon Swandale, a local campaigner whose home in the village of Mersham used to be a 20-minute walk from Sevington, but due to the Brexit facility between them now requires a four-mile drive. “The worst thing is the uncertainty. We don’t know how long this will last – for months or years. The only thing guaranteed here is the smell of tarmac.”
During a recent visit by VICE World News, more than five miles of queues lined the A20 up to Dover. If the UK and the EU fail to strike a free trade deal before the end of the year, tariffs will be up on many goods, creating more disruption. Even if there is a deal, border checks will increase. “They are here queuing nearby my house all day and all night,” adds retiree Bessent, who has a lung disease. “I’m coughing up my lungs with all these diesel fumes.”
It’s not that any of this disruption should be surprising. French customs agents – who, under an arrangement called the Touquet agreement, are currently able to inspect lorries on UK soil – have warned for over a year that Brexit would cause mayhem for drivers. A July, 2019 report from the UK’s Institute of Government said that parts of Kent risked being turned into a “lorry park”.
Maidstone Grammar School, a secondary school of 1,400 students located a mile away from the M20, has said it will close for some days in January over fears Brexit will cause debilitating traffic jams. “Disruption caused by the end of the transition period may require schools to adapt their blended learning to suit the prevailing circumstances, as the rate of absence may be exacerbated,” says headteacher Mark Tomkins. “We believe this is a sensible move to allow us to assess the impact of Brexit on Kent and to ensure that we can deliver teaching from the start of term.”
This is all taking place against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic, with record numbers of coronavirus cases piling further pressure on already strained local services.
The Kent district of Swale has England’s highest COVID infection rate, at 633 per 100,000 people, and has helped to plunge the county into the highest tier of restrictions in the country. This week, health secretary Matt Hancock revealed that a “new variant” of COVID-19 had been identified, which was likely behind the rapid spread of the virus in the county.
That chaotic combination has led to delays in the delivery of the COVID vaccine. In Kent, the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, Canterbury Hospital and the Queen Elizabeth Queen Mother Hospital in Margate are among those set to receive doses. But GPs have reported that deliveries have been pushed back at the last minute – forcing mass rescheduling.
“Having spent weeks organising these COVID vaccines and getting 975 patients booked in, we have been told they won't be arriving on Mon as planned,” tweeted Dr Yvette Rean.
Local health authorities admitted the delays are down to traffic-related issues in the region. “Our geographical position means we are the gateway to Europe, and therefore traffic disruption is expected,” said Wilf Williams, accountable officer for NHS Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group, in a statement. The Department for Transport declined to comment.
For the people of the Brexit-supporting Kent, this “Brave New World” – as one scrawl of graffiti in Dover proclaims – is not yet the one many had hoped for.
“I feel like I’m in a prison,” says Cherylynn Lang, a dog breeder whose hedge-rowed home is a few dozen metres away from the heaving construction site in Sevington.
“We’re marooned here. We weren’t consulted at all about this site and we have the impression that plans change from one day to the next,” said Lang, who voted Leave.
“Nobody knows what’s going on.”