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Politics in Kent dominated by Brexit and coronavrius

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It was a truly turbulent year in politics, dominated by two words - Brexit and Covid. The two converged to conclude an annus horribilis for Kent as the French authorities blocked travel from the UK amid Covid fears. Political editor Paul Francis looks back at the highlights and lowlights.

Brexit Gets Done

A Brexit deal was agreed in the 11th hour
A Brexit deal was agreed in the 11th hour

After securing a comfortable majority at a snap election at the end of 2019, the government finally managed to get its Brexit Bill through Parliament in January.

Unlike the furore and raucous late night debates and votes when then Prime Minister Theresa May was striving to get a deal done, the formal passage of legislation marking the end of four decades in the EU went through with barely a murmur.

Through The Roof

KCC leader Roger Gough. Picture: John Nurden
KCC leader Roger Gough. Picture: John Nurden

Kent MPs along with council leaders were united at the government’s proposal to adopt a new formula to calculate housing targets.

The much-maligned mutant algorithm would have increased those targets significantly - and in parts of the county where the rate of house building has it been highest.

There was a familiar refrain that the plans would see the Garden of England concreted over.

It led to a warning from Kent County Council leader Roger Gough that if the proposal went ahead, the Conservative party could expect to see losses in the May council elections. Ministers took note and the new targets were dropped

Channel crossing creates choppy political waters

Pictures show people arriving in Dover this morning as more boats cross the channel to Kent. Pictures by Chris Johnson and posted on @StephenGanderBP twitter account
Pictures show people arriving in Dover this morning as more boats cross the channel to Kent. Pictures by Chris Johnson and posted on @StephenGanderBP twitter account

The summer months saw a surge in the number of small boats and inflatable dinghies carrying groups of asylum seekers who had risked crossing the busiest shipping channels to reach the UK and landed on Kent’s shores. While mainly groups of men, there was an increasing number of young children, who fell under the care of the county council.

The rising numbers in these children placed further strains on an already over-stretched social services.

Eventually those stresses became so great, the county council issued a formal warning that it had reached its capacity to cope and would no longer be able to look after any new arrivals.

The Border Force took up the role and KCC was eventually able to resume providing care for children in November.

Paved Paradise and Put Up A Parking Lot

Ashford Brexit lorry park
Ashford Brexit lorry park

The Joni Mitchell song seemed an appropriate one for residents in Ashford who discovered that the government had bought up land near their homes for a massive lorry parking site as part of its no-deal Brexit contingency plans.

The government gave residents near the site at Sevington, close to Junction 10a off the M20, short notice of its plans to use land for a holding site for up to 2,000 HGVs - dubbed an Inland Border Facility - in the event of disruption at the end of the Brexit transition period.

Initially, the site was estimated to be 27-acres but by the end of the year had morphed to 66 acres. But as the bulldozers levelled the site, the Department for Transport was not keen to share information about its environmental impact, turning down requests under the Freedom of Information Act on the strange grounds that it was “not in the public interest.”

The proposal led to a tongue-in-cheek petition urging that the government name the park the “Farage Garage” after the former Ukip leader.

Ending in tiers?

The introduction of a system of restrictions in which local areas were placed into different categories on the basis of prevalence of the coronavirus divided opinion among the county’s MPs.

A group of seven urged ministers to ease restrictions in their constituencies to help struggling businesses recover. In a letter to Matt Hancock, health secretary, at the end of November, they wrote: “We strongly believe that any local lockdown should be conducted on a borough or district level."

The idea was given short shrift by MPs in other areas of the county. Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson said his fellow MPs were “flogging a dead horse.”

Up In The Air

There was jubilation among campaigners fighting to re-open Manston as a cargo hub airport when the government declared that, after a lengthy public inquiry, it was giving the owners RiverOak Strategic Partners the go-ahead for a Development Consent Order, a major step forward.

However, as with the long-saga over the site, there was a twist in the tale: opponents went to court to argue that in granting the DCO, the government had failed to set out in enough detail its grounds for doing so, given the government had ignored the recommendation from planning inspectors the DCO be rejected.

The government has not contested the legal challenge and there will now be a re-examination of the evidence.

Gridlock: Kent’s pre-Brexit Covid breakdown

These pictures show the difference at Manston between December 22 and Boxing Day Pics: Swift Aerial Photography/Grant Shapps
These pictures show the difference at Manston between December 22 and Boxing Day Pics: Swift Aerial Photography/Grant Shapps

As the UK reported the emergence of a new strain of the coronavirus, a steady stream of countries began to move to block travellers entering amid fears that it would spread the infection.

But it was the decision by the French authorities to put the brakes on those crossing the Channel which crippled the county’s road network.

In the space of 48-hours, several thousand lorries turned the M20 into a car park and it was still not enough to cope with what was becoming a fully-fledged crisis. Operation Stack was put in place ahead of Operation Brock, which some saw as unusual.

Then the Manston airport site was put into action to make space for some 4,000 lorries. Eventually, France relented and re-opened its borders - so long as drivers were able to demonstrate they had a negative test result in 72 hours.

If the events were a test of the “entente cordiale” they were also a test of the myriad of contingency plans devised by emergency planners to mitigate against the impact of Brexit. And on the evidence, some would argue they weren’t quite up to scratch.

In their own words, how our politicians reacted to events throughout 2020:

North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale called for the PM's resignation before a deal was agreed
North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale called for the PM's resignation before a deal was agreed

“If Mr Johnson fails to reach an acceptable trade agreement with the EU the Prime Minister will also have failed the people of the United Kingdom. As an honourable man, he would have to make way for somebody more able to pick up the pieces, to re-unite the whole country and to show the leadership that Great Britain and Northern Ireland deserves" - Sir Roger Gale, North Thanet MP gives Boris an ultimatum ahead of trade talks with the EU.

"The French have been given tens of millions of pounds of British hard-earned taxpayer money... I want to know where the money has gone. Because while much has been done, it is clear there is more to do; more to do tackling the people traffickers behind this shocking trade in people; more to do making sure anyone found in the Channel is immediately sent back to France” - Dover and Deal MP Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke on record numbers of would-be migrants trying to cross the English channel

“This is very much the type of cross-border co-operation we are building on with our partners in the Straits Committee to build on and protect cross-Channel commerce following the UK’s exit from the European Union” - County councillor Mike Whiting, cabinet member for economic development, on the success of an EU project showing, he said, how Kent could work with its European neighbours after Brexit. Just before the French authorities closed the country's borders with the UK, leaving thousands of hauliers stranded

"Schools are desperate for mass testing to come in. We would welcome it with open arms but being asked to do it ourselves is like asking a nurse to teach A-level Shakespeare” - Kent headteacher Alan Brookes underwhelmed by government announcement to roll out mass testing for schoolchildren

“I am being asked to spend £50bn - possibly more - and I am not abstaining...I am paid to have a view and tonight I won’t be supporting the government” - Thanet South MP Craig Mackinlay on his opposition to new Covid restrictions

“Anything with the word ‘parkway’ in it is in the wrong place” - Green county councillor Martin Whybrow

“Each and every one of us must continue to protect each other from this devastating virus. It is vital that we follow the Government rules to save lives, protect the NHS, keep our loved ones safe and come through this lockdown together” - Kent County Council leader Roger Gough on prospect of another lockdown

Transport secretary Grant Shapps announces a protection package for ferry and freight routes across the Channel including Eurotunnel (43761118)
Transport secretary Grant Shapps announces a protection package for ferry and freight routes across the Channel including Eurotunnel (43761118)

“Immediately as soon as the French said, perhaps slightly surprisingly, that they would stop hauliers rather than just passengers, we were in touch with a group known as the Kent Resilience Forum” - transport secretary of state Grant Shapps admits he was surprised by the French blockade that caused havoc at Dover and led to days of gridlock

"Boris is the man who got the job done, perhaps not perfectly, but he's done what he said he would do; the war is over" - Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage in conciliatory mood as the UK heads for the door marked 'Brexit'

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