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A port in a storm

A view of the A20 lined with queueing lorries making their way into the Port of Dover, December 2020


A view of the A20 lined with queueing lorries making their way into the Port of Dover, December 2020

“I went to Dover on Tuesday 22nd December and found the entire town in gridlock. There were thousands of vehicles on the streets, mainly lorries but also people driving home to spend Christmas in Europe. A lot of families were trapped, there were no washing facilities for those stuck overnight and no food or water supplied by any authorities. All the public toilets were locked because of the pandemic, so everyone was either having to use the side of the road in town or go on the beach.

“The only authority figures present when I arrived were the police at the main roundabout next to the harbour. They were really there on a traffic-controlling basis and had no information for anyone. There was an enormous sign saying that the port was closed, that when it reopened people would need a Covid test to board a ferry and that the only place to get one was at Manston airport, 20 miles away. Everyone was stuck in a traffic jam and couldn’t move. It was an impossible situation.”

A Romanian family stuck at Dover trying to get home for Christmas

A lorry driver queues after being turned back from the Channel Tunnel

Simone and his son Bojidar trying to make it home to Romania

“The next day I walked along the main road and started to talk to families stuck in cars. They had been there for two days and were beside themselves, just desperate to get home.

“I met Dan [top photo above] travelling with his wife, mother and two children, the youngest of whom was just a month old. Dan and his wife had been working in London but decided that their time in the UK was up and were driving home to Romania. They were very close to the front of the queue and had pulled off into a little slip road where they became stuck. Simone and his young son [bottom photo above] were in a similar situation, trying to make it home to Romania. One lorry driver I spoke to [middle photo above] was trying to get back to Spain after being turned away from the Channel Tunnel. Someone had advised him to drive to Dover and now he was stuck there.

“It got colder on the night of the 23rd, so people were running their engines trying to stay warm in their cars, to the point where some ran out of fuel. People had to sleep sitting up in their cars, sometimes five to a vehicle. Members of the Bruderhof and London Sikh communities came down and gave out food on the 23rd and 24th. There was also an incredible response from Dover locals who came out with food and tea. It was a really good reaction, but there was nothing from the authorities.

“On the night of the 23rd I came across a little truck with four eastern European drivers in the back [see over]. They had rigged up a gas canister with a burner, someone had produced a pan from somewhere, they’d gone to Marks & Spencer to buy chicken and they were frying it up. The guy in the Union Jack beanie had all his presents for his family in the truck, including a big plastic ride-around car for his kids. But he and his friends had realised they were stuck and there was no way out. This was going to be their Christmas, so they thought, ‘Fuck it, we’re going to have some chicken and get boozy.’ They were really jolly, offering anyone who came past chicken and a beer.

“There were loads of different rumours swirling around – ‘Oh, the port’s going to open soon’; ‘Oh, they’re going to open a test centre down here.’ Then on the 24th, British and Polish soldiers plus a team of French firefighters arrived and started administering lateral flow tests. Those who tested negative were free to board ferries. Eventually on Christmas Eve the backlog began to be cleared – for a while.”

A group of lorry drivers throw an impromptu Christmas party as they wait in queues at Dover, 23rd December 2020

“Even before the pile-up over Christmas there had been long traffic jams going up the A20 out of Dover due to Operation TAP (Traffic Assessment Project), which the government initiates when there are especially high levels of lorries heading into the port. It means that lorries have to queue in the left-hand lane so locals can get in and out of town in the right-hand lane. The weight of traffic before the Christmas crisis was due to haulage companies trying to get everything through before the end of the Brexit transition period on 31st December as well as the usual Christmas surge and the government testing Brexit customs procedures.

“I have been documenting how queueing lorries have been affecting the estate of Aycliffe, which runs alongside the A20 by the port, only separated from the road by a flimsy noise barrier. Traffic jams sit right by the estate, so you’ve got lots of air pollution because these lorries sit there with their engines running. It’s a health and environmental disaster.

“Local residents told me about headaches and respiratory problems they believe to be caused by the diesel fumes. Then you’ve got sound pollution because of the continual drone of engines. If a truck does come past the queue of lorries and they think it’s trying to cut in, everyone starts sounding their air horns in protest. This can go on all night, keeping residents awake. Whenever the lorries are queueing up the A20 their drivers have to go to the toilet somewhere. People on the estate told me that bottles of urine are sometimes thrown into their back gardens and on to the verges of the road.

“Rubbish from the lorries gets put out in bags by the drivers and when the winds come in off the sea it gets blown into the estate. What’s more, lorries sometimes drive onto the estate while trying to skip out of the queues on the A20. So drivers start pulling into Aycliffe only to find that it’s a 1950s estate with hairpin bends. Some cars have been trashed up there because you’ve got HGVs pulling in and just trying to weave their way through.

“Aycliffe wasn’t always like this. It is in the most incredible location just next to the White Cliffs of Dover and used to have direct walking access to the cliffs and beaches until the A20 was built in 1993, cutting it off. I met Andrew [pictured second photo below] on a path that runs up from Dover and underneath the A20. He told me it was paradise here before the road came, but now it keeps getting worse and worse.”

James and Joanne out walking dogs on the Aycliffe estate, which they describe as “covered in litter” from queueing lorries

Andrew, pictured at the underpass that links Aycliffe to the cliffs of Dover

The Aycliffe estate

“Just down the road from Aycliffe is the small, quiet village of Guston. In December 2020 its residents received a letter saying that there had been a compulsory purchase of some farmers’ fields in front of their houses and that an inland border facility (IBF) would be built there – an enormous lorry park that will act as a customs clearance facility. It will further ruin the countryside around Dover, destroy some important bridleways and footpaths, increase traffic and hamper access to local businesses. It’s a direct product of Brexit.

“Mick [pictured below] used to be an international lorry driver and owns one of the houses which back on to these fields. He and his wife have had that house since they were married, their family’s grown up there. And now this customs facility and lorry park could be within 25 metres of their home, running 24/7. The place will be floodlit so there will be light, air and noise pollution plus a view over 1,200 lorries.

Residents of Guston demonstrate on a bridge over the A2

Mick, a retired HGV driver, looks out of his window over farmland. By July 2021 this will be a customs clearing centre

“There’s the general feeling in the community that this has been not only forced upon them, but forced upon them during lockdown, when they can’t hold demonstrations.

“Sarah Gleave [final photo] is a coordinator for Dover and Deal Green Party and a candidate for villages north of Dover. She’s been working so hard bannering, flyering and pushing for press coverage of the impending disaster in Guston. She is an incredible lady. It turns out she spent time in Central America and it came as a nice surprise when we said goodbye and she shot me a quintessential rebel farewell. I never thought I would be called compañero on a bridge over the A2.

Gleave concedes that an inland border facility is needed, but says Guston is the wrong place, a result of what she described in a piece in the Dover Express as ‘lazy, ignorant planning by London’. She has urged the government to relocate the facility somewhere it will cause less economic and environmental damage. I fear, though, that she has an uphill struggle on her hands.”

A view across the proposed site of a new Inland Border Facility at Guston, just outside Dover, which will process thousands of lorries a day

Green Party campaigner Sarah Gleave


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