Published: 06:00, 08 September 2020
| Updated: 14:01, 08 September 2020
The government is yet to work out the potential environmental impact of a huge Brexit lorry park - even though construction started almost two months ago.
Ministers have already faced claims of unnecessary secrecy over their plans for the holding area for up to 2,000 trucks on a 27-acre site near the M20 in Sevington, Ashford.
Now the Department for Transport (DfT) has blocked the release of details about the impact of the MOJO site in response to a Freedom of Information request made by KentOnline.
It argues it is not in the public interest to release details of environmental assessments as they are part of an on-going process and have not yet been completed.
The decision to withhold information is likely to add to frustration for residents, businesses and councillors, who have complained bitterly about the government’s failure to properly consult on the scheme.
In its response to the FOI request, the DfT says that as the site is a “live development” for a significant infrastructure project providing facilities related to future border processes, the department is “unable to provide specific details on the development at this time including the modelling and impact assessments as this material is still in the course of completion".
It argued that the information being used is still “subject to further development".
As a result, “premature disclosure into the public domain may distract the public debate away from the substantive issues that the information relates to and instead the debate could focus on secondary issues such as any deficiencies in the information".
The DfT will not even say who has attended meetings from Ashford Borough Council (ABC), Kent County Council and the Kent Resilience Forum about the proposal.
On the issue of whether an environmental impact assessment had been carried out, it is relying on exemptions permitting authorities to withhold information, where data is incomplete and documents are unfinished.
On its justification for withholding details of meetings with the county council, ABC and the Kent Resilience Forum, the DfT says the information is related to the “formulation of government policy” and as such is exempt.
Last week, when MPs returned after the summer break, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick gave himself sweeping powers to build lorry parks in England - including at the Ashford site.
A Special Development Order (SDO) has been used, which allows the Secretary of State to grant planning permission, rather than the local authority.
But Linda Arthur - from the Village Alliance campaign group - says she is "surprised" the DfT has blocked the release of the details.
She said: "The SDO was laid before parliament on Friday and states that substantive local engagement is required, so communication about environmental impact assessment of the work outside the original planning permission should be made available.
"It heightens our concerns that they have commenced work without fully assessing or completing the environmental impact.
"We have to ask the question, what have they got to hide?
"Highways England made the mistake of not doing an environmental impact assessment for the lorry park site at Stanford and was stopped by a Judicial Review."
Mrs Arthur says the amount of soil being left on land to the east of the MOJO site is "enormous and dwarfing adjacent properties".
She said: "The impact of soil deposited for 12 months will undoubtedly damage the quality of the Grade 2 agricultural land.
"The dust and constant noise and vibrations of heavy machinery is distressing to residents, who have this at the bottom of their garden.
"We have asked the 'Stakeholder Engagement Team' whether there is an outline construction environmental management plan in place and approved by the SoS.
"We have to ask the question, what have they got to hide?"
"This is required before construction works can commence.
"We have yet to have a response to our question.
"We believe the ecological value of the ancient hedge surrounding Highfield Lane will have increased, since Highfield Lane become a non-motorised byway and J10a constructors removed much of the hedgerows in the area.
"A new assessment of its value should be made in light of the MOJO development.”
The MOJO site is likely to be completed by November to ensure the lorry park can be "properly tested" ahead of the UK's EU departure on December 31.
Last month, residents said a 'Saxon' wall had been found on part of the site close to Church Road, which has forced contractors to stop work on the section as archaeologists assess the discovery.
The DfT says it is not Saxon, but did not say which period it is from when asked by KentOnline.
A spokesman added: “At the end of this year the UK will become a fully independent country and this site will form part of our ongoing plans to help ensure the free flow of freight at the border.
“While commercial sensitivities made it impossible to consult prior to acquisition of this site, a letter from minister Rachel Maclean was hand-delivered to all properties on the perimeter.
"We will work closely with community leaders to ensure local residents and businesses are kept informed as plans progress.”