Residents of a village near Dover have mounted what they describe as a “David and Goliath” battle to try to reverse government plans to turn fields at the ends of their gardens into a giant Brexit customs clearance site for 1,200 lorries.
The local Anglican priest and former president of the chamber of commerce accused the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, and the transport minister, Rachel Maclean, of a “clear abuse of power” over the lack of notice and consultation over the consequences of their plans.
With less than two weeks to go before the end of an official 21-day engagement process, they staged a socially-distanced protest at the fields destined to become the White Cliffs inland border facility. They are demanding the government to “relocate to a safer site”.
One pensioner was almost in tears over the prospect of hundreds of HGVs driving beyond his fence in a 37-hectare plot of agricultural land.
He complained the plans were hatched “behind closed doors” and only conveyed to residents on New Year’s Eve despite the devastation they will bring to their lives.
“I think they way they have handled it is unethical, immoral and unprincipled,” said Peter Sherred, a self-supporting Anglican priest who has lived in the village for the past 25 years officiating at numerous local churches.
“The disgraceful thing about all of this was there was absolutely no consultation whatsoever with people in the local area or the residents who are going to be most affected, to whom these plans came as a complete shock.
“We were told that at some stage in January we would be involved in an engagement process, where we would have been able to express our views, but I have to say I find that somewhat meaningless because as you can see they are already have machines in the land, they have created an access route to the land and yet they say it will not be approved until after the engagement.
“I can’t see them backtracking on this project. This is a fait accompli,” he said.
In an official submission to the Department for Transport he and his wife say: “The manner of proceeding has involved a clear abuse of power by departments involved [DfT and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government] including the secretaries of state, under secretaries of state and officials”.
The DfT says in its notice about the site, published last week, that the site will only be used for five years and says it will take feedback submitted by 3 February into account.
“The White Cliffs inland border facility proposals are planned for temporary use and are designed to ensure that there are no significant or long-term environmental effects,” it said.
But none of the locals can see the site being restored to something suitable in 2025.
Sarah Gleave, the coordinator for the Green party for Dover and Deal, has been leading the campaign to get the plans reversed along with Guston parish council members. She said the site was a result of “lazy, ignorant planning by London”. “Obviously we must have inland clearance sites but this is the wrong location,” she added.
The site is one of 10 inland border facilities the government has either opened, is building, or is planning to deal with the full suite of customs, tariffs and duties checks that will be operation from July this year.
Maclean wrote to locals on New Year’s Eve to notify them of the purchase of the land and the site.
But Sherred and residents say they got a second shock last week when the department wrote to them with a more detailed outline for the site, which showed an exit route for lorries sited along a cycle and bus route proposed by the local council as part of a pre-existing regeneration programme.
“Mentally it is getting to me with Covid and everything else and now this,” he said. “I just wanted to retire peacefully,” said a visibly distraught Kieron Jaynes, 70, as he explained how hundreds of HGVs were now going to skirt the garden in the rural home he bought more than 20 years ago.
Dover born and bred, he has lived in his house for 22 years, and invested in the community through a business employing 35 people.
Jaynes doesn’t want conflict or headlines and suggests one solution is the government, which purchased the site at the end of last year under emergency legislation, instead use the land for a visitor attraction for the coachloads that visit nearby Dover Castle and the cyclists and runners who use this town hinterland for its green credentials.
The town has “such enormous history” over the centuries and yet has nothing for tourists, not even toilets at the castle, just a walk away from his house.
Neighbour Mick Palmer, 78, and his family are also suffering and his wife has become ill with anxiety and depression since the plans were revealed three weeks ago.
“It is a travesty to says it’s a consultation. They’ve already got the bulldozers in,” he said. He and fellow protester Sharon McCartney suggest nearby Betteshanger Park, which is already paved over, is a more suitable site for hundreds of lorries a day. “It’s flat land and it’s already tarmacked,” she says.
A DfT spokesperson said it was engaging with the local community and had extended the time period for residents to submit views from two weeks, their legal requirement, to three.