Published: 12:30, 26 January 2012
by political editor Paul Francis
It cost nearly £13m but has been used just once.
Now it has emerged a moveable barrier designed to minimise delays during Operation Stack is costing the taxpayer an additional £600,000 a year.
The Highways Agency is paying a six-figure sum to lease the so-called Quick Moveable Barrier every year - even though it has been used for Operation Stack just once since 2008.
The barrier was installed four years ago to allow a mobile contra-flow to be set up along the M20 whenever Operation Stack was implemented.
It is supposed to separate lorries waiting to cross the Channel from London-bound traffic, easing delays and disruption caused when the port or Chunnel is closed.
The leasing fee is paid regardless of whether the barrier is used. It means that over the last four years, more than £2m has been spent on a system that has been used just once for the purpose for which it was intended.
The Highways Agency confirmed it was now reviewing the leasing arrangements.
The Folkestone and Hythe MP Damian Collins said he had been unaware of the additional costs.
He said: "It seems incredibly expensive given how much was spent building the barrier and in that respect has clearly been a failure. If you add up all the costs, such as police officer time and everything else, it underlines the need to find a permanent solution to Operation Stack."
Tim Prater, the Liberal Democrat county councillor for Folkestone West, said the figure was "jaw dropping."
"How and why it costs that amount to run is beyond me. Why is the Highways Agency renting it in the first place? As far as I’m concerned, it is certainly not quick to deploy and is not fit for purpose."
In a statement, the Highways Agency said: "The Quickchange Moveable Barrier (QMB) was installed between junctions 11 and 12 of the M20 in 2008 to help manage traffic during Phase One of Kent Police’s Operation Stack on the M20. Due to it being bespoke and specialist equipment, it is leased at a cost of £627,849 a year. The lease expires in April 2012 and a value for money review on its continued lease is currently taking place."
It added: "In the meantime we continue to work with partners in finding a longer term solution for mitigating the effects of Operation Stack. Any solution must provide good value for taxpayers."
The barrier was never intended as a permanent solution to the problems caused by Operation Stack.
The disclosure that it has cost more than £2m to lease will inevitably raise questions about whether the money spent could have been better spent on a permanent lorry park - a solution favoured by Kent County Council. It is exploring the possibility of a park on a 70-acre site off the M20 at Aldington, near Ashford.
According to an analysis by county transport chiefs, Operation Stack has been implemented 25 times since 2008 but the barrier has been used just once.
On 16 of those occasions, Phase Two of Operation Stack - in which lorries are stacked up on the M20 between Ashford and Maidstone - was also implemented.
KCC has estimated that the costs to the Highways Agency over the last five years has been at least £6.5m.
Meanwhile, the prospect of a lorry park that could cost £25m being built in the near future continue to be uncertain.