Imagine the surprise in Devon, Dorset and Somerset when people awoke to discover that Robert Jenrick — he of regeneration-funds-for-votes and cash-for-planning-favour infamy — has initiated a massive land-grab of their counties. Wielding a Henry VIII clause, the millennial Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government (HC&LG) has drawn up Statutory Instrument 2020 No.928, and it makes for painful reading.
Statutory instruments (SI) are a form of delegated legislation made by ministers to flesh out the details of primary legislation – Acts of Parliament – which are essentially legal frameworks. They are not sinister in and of themselves. Every year, delegated legislation outnumbers primary legislation by as much as five times over. What is so worrying about this particular SI is that there is what many voters would consider a significant transfer of power from local to central government. Arguably, it should be the subject of primary legislation, in order to afford it the scrutiny of several readings, debate and a vote in parliament.
SI 928, nattily entitled ‘The Town and Country (Borders and Infrastructure) (EU Exit) (England) Special Development Order 2020’, gives the HC&LG minister sweeping powers to designate land in various maritime counties around England to be used as lorry parks, or other customs infrastructure. There are some exemptions, like national parks, world heritage sites, battlefields, and so on. The SI is valid from 24th September, 2020, until December 31st, 2026, although the whole of the last year is for ‘reinstatement’. In other words, it’s not intended to be permanent, but then again, nor are so many measures governments introduce on a temporary basis.
Landowners have a right of notification, but it is not clear whether they must consent in order for any project to proceed, or if they will be subject to a compulsory purchase order. On the face of it, there appears to be no appeals process for either landowners or local councils. Will this government trample on yet more citizens’ rights? Are our locally elected councillors to be completely side-lined in planning decisions now? Are local residents to have no say on their built landscape? There was no prior consultation with council leaders before this measure was announced. They were taken completely by surprise. So much for the communications wizardry of a certain, Rasputin-like unelected bureaucrat…
Vikki Slade, leader of Bournemouth-Christchurch-Poole (BCP) Council, professed herself “shocked” on Twitter. She rang around, but could find nobody who knew anything more, such as what land the government might have in mind. The extent of the order – covering the entire territory of BCP and indeed, the county of Dorset, was concerning. Granting planning permission is usually reserved to local authorities. Money had been spent in 2019 on no-deal preparations, but now there’s a whole new set of requirements, and a question mark over whether funding will be forthcoming. Indeed, it’s not clear why the South West’s counties have been swept up by lorry park mania, as the 2019 Operation Yellowhammer report on no-deal preparations had said there was low risk of sustained queues at ports outside Kent that have high volumes of EU traffic. No doubt this will be something our local councils and MPs will want to follow up on.
The excuse for this draconian measure is the ticking clock: facilities must be in place by January 1st, 2021. Why is government only acting now, at the last minute? Anybody familiar with the reality of Brexit – as opposed to unicornist fantasies propagated by tabloids – knew it would mean trade barriers, more red tape and delays at borders, requiring investment in customs holding facilities. Government has had more than four years to prepare.
All summer-long we’ve been subjected to Check-Change-Gove’s “get ready for the end of Transition” ads as part of the government’s extravagant waste of £93million of taxpayers’ money on a nauseating ad campaign. Some of them have been ludicrous, hailing the introduction of trade barriers, new red tape and delays – all of which increase the cost of doing business and depress profit margins – as “a fresh start”. One ad even boasted about the government “boosting the customs sector”, as if that were a good thing. They are yet to do one about “boosting the lorry park sector”, or “Farage Garages” as these new facilities have come to be known, but it would be entirely in character.
Last time no-deal loomed we were given the details of Operation Yellowhammer, thanks to a fortuitous leak to The Times. This time the information has been leaked to The Sun. That might seem odd, but the government recently discovered that the people who weren’t preparing for no-deal Brexit, or even Boris Johnson’s “thin gruel” deal with the EU, which will be almost as disruptive, are deeply convinced Leave voters. They still believe the risks (which our “VoteLeave” government itself now warns of) are “Project Fear”, and that the completion of Brexit will unlock the gates to a more prosperous future in the sunlit uplands. Publishing a dose of truth in The Sun might jolt them out of what Liam Fox once termed “irrational positivity”.
It is difficult to compare the two scenarios, because the Yellowhammer report was (eventually) released in full, whereas the Cabinet Office presentation has not, so we only have the summary from The Sun’s political editor Harry Cole on which to base our judgement. One thing is clear: the new report paints a far bleaker picture. Not only do we have to contend with a downgrade of our terms of trade with our largest market, but we are also struggling to control a lethal pandemic and facing the worst recession this country has ever known. To cap it all, our government has set the end of transition in the middle of winter, when it also expects seasonal floods in many parts of the country and a flu epidemic. It is worth remembering that it is 100 per cent the government’s choice to inflict trade chaos on us on top of everything else we’re having to deal with. And it will be chaos because IT systems haven’t even been developed yet, infrastructure is not in place and customs officials haven’t been screened, recruited and trained.
Taking Yellowhammer as the least bad scenario, it anticipates traffic flow disruption of 40-60 per cent, which would lead to HGV lorries being on the road up to 2 days longer per trip and greater congestion. The knock-on effects of this would include long tailbacks and diversions using country roads through villages. As a direct consequence of this, children will experience increased pollution, longer journeys to school and school-meal discontinuity — and that’s before we even consider the risks of shortages of medicines, hospital equipment and other health-care supplies.
Dr Rob Hughes, senior fellow at the Clean Air Fund, said: “Air pollution makes us, and especially our children, sick from cradle to the grave, but is often invisible.”
Those two little words, “increased pollution”, cover a multitude of sins. Research suggests that air pollution contributes to higher risk of heart disease, stroke, heart failure and bronchitis, especially in children where it can stunt lung capacity by up to 14 per cent and impair cognitive ability. The last thing we want, then, is for government to bring down a Yellowhammer-type scenario on our heads.
We are paying a huge price for ministerial negligence. It is to be hoped local MPs will urge government to re-think depriving us of yet more rights. Brexit was supposed to mean more democracy not less. So far it has manifested as a concentration of power into the hands of Mao fanboy Dominic Cummings and his creepy unit of misfits and weirdos. Government should stop trying to bypass democratic scrutiny and decision-making, whether it be at local or national level. Brexit at any cost and damn the consequences is not a mantra for a sane government. Nor is ‘take back control’ when it actually means seize autocratic powers’. Time for MPs and Conservative councillors to discover some backbone and stand up for their constituents.