English villages are waking up to the new Brexit frontier

Construction takes place on a post-Brexit customs clearance border post facility on land that was previously a field between the villages of Mersham and Sevington in the county of Kent, south east England, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. In the corner of Britain known as the Garden of England, Brexit is literally taking concrete form. Diggers, dump trucks and cement mixers are transforming a field in the village of Sevington into a customs clearance depot with room for up to 2,000 trucks. It's part of Britain's new border with the European Union, and no one asked the locals for their permission. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Four years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Brexit is still just an abstract idea. But in the county known as the Garden of England, it’s literally taking concrete form.

Behind the old oaks and lichen trees that surround the medieval St. Mary’s Church in Sevington Village, bulldozers, dump trucks and cement mixers clamor over a field. They are chewing the ground to create part of New Britain’s border with the European Union – a customs clearance warehouse holding up to 2,000 trucks.

Nobody from locals has asked for permission, and even in the Brexit support area, the turmoil is straining support for the split between the UK and the EU.

“The first thing anyone knew was when I raised a sign saying that pedestrian paths were closed,” said Sharon Swandale, whose home was in the village of Mircham, a 20-minute walk from Sevington. The lane closure for construction work means it is now approximately 4 miles (6.4 km) by car.

This county, Kent, voted 60% to 40% to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum in Britain, but Swandale said the visions of truck stops and customs warehouses were not on their minds.

“This was never part of the actual selling and marketing of Brexit,” she said.

The thriving villages of Sevington and Mircham are located 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the Channel Tunnel to France and 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Britain’s largest ferry port at Dover. Between them, the two roads carry 4 million trucks a year, filled with food and all kinds of other essential items.

These goods moved back and forth freely while Britain was part of the single market and the customs union of the European Union. The UK left the bloc’s political structures in January, and it will make an economic break when a transition period ends on December 31. This means that Britain must establish customs borders with the 27-nation European Union, its largest trading partner.

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Opponents of Brexit say it is a waste of money and effort that would hurt businesses on both sides. For the backers, this is all part of regaining control over the country’s borders and trade.

But everyone agrees that this means a new routine, with customs declarations and inspections needed. If the UK and the European Union fail to conclude a free trade deal before the end of the year, then tariffs will be imposed on many goods, leading to further disruption, bureaucracy and expenses.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has been reluctant to disclose details of its border plans. But last month, it admitted that the “reasonable worst-case scenario” included “7,000 trucks bound for the ports in Kent and the associated maximum delays of up to two days.”

Government plans to curb disruption include converting sections of the highway into a temporary parking lot for trucks, and imposing a “Kent pass” – essentially a passport that truck drivers heading to the European Union must enter from other parts of Britain.

The Sevington site is designated for customs checks, and it could also be a “temporary traffic management facility” – a car park – for trucks if there are delays at the border, the government says.

The 27-acre field is one of 10 sites across the country dedicated to potential frontier infrastructure, under the authorities that the government has granted itself to buy and build without consulting local authorities or residents first.

“So far, no locals have seen the plans,” said Rick Martin, president of Sevington Parish Council, adding that locals are concerned about the deadlock and the site’s impact on property prices.

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“People are confused about what it will look like when there are 1,000 trucks parked on the other side of the road,” he said.

Sevington and Mersham are two ancient settlements, mentioned in the 1086 census known as the Doomsday Book, but it cannot be said that the residents reject modern life. They are already living with the buzz of traffic on the M20 motorway running through the area, and the sounds of trains speeding 185 miles per hour (300 kilometers per hour) toward the Canal Tunnel.

This makes them even more determined to preserve the remaining rural character of their communities.

With support from local politicians, the villagers are trying to limit the damage by bailing out a nearby field, which the government also bought but has yet to set a date for development. It is the last green space between it and the neighboring sprawling city of Ashford.

“The ideal place to save would be a green barrier between all the development here and the village,” said Swandel, a member of the Village Alliance, a local campaign group.

The construction has already haunted the skylights that once housed the future customs site. Swandale says maintaining another field could save newts, large crested flowers, and paths used by walkers, cyclists and horse riders.

“It’s taking back control,” she said, chanting the slogan for Brexit. “They provide this for the local people, they use it. It’s planting trees to reduce carbon, increase biodiversity. … It will go a long way to mitigate this development.

The British still don’t know if New Year’s Day 2021 will bring a worse-case scenario or a smoother exit. Talks on a trade deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union have reached a dead end over fishing rights and fair competition rules. At this week’s summit, European Union leaders will assess whether a breakout is possible. There are only weeks left to seal a deal if it is to be ratified by the end of the year.

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Paul Bartlett, a conservative member of Kent County Council who lives next door to the huge construction site, admits that the customs facility on his doorstep was a surprise. But as a staunch supporter of Brexit, he is determined to see the positive side of the new customs site.

He said, “We need jobs, after the coronavirus pandemic plunged the UK into recession. I hope we have 300 jobs and there is a good system of apprenticeships in which young people can register and advance their careers.

“It’s a beautiful part of the country to live in, and sometimes you have to deal with the tough with the smooth.”

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