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What 2021 has in store for Kent after UK formally leaves EU

Brexit may bring new opportunities but may also mean new challenges for Kent, writes KentOnline's political editor Paul Francis.

There is nothing politicians like less than unpredictable events and 2020 provided more than its fair share. The word that has been used most to encapsulate the last 12 months is ‘unprecedented - but there have been times when even that seemed inadequate to describe the political turmoil.

Cargo containers with European Union and British flags reflecting Brexit and restrictions in export and import (43757182)
Cargo containers with European Union and British flags reflecting Brexit and restrictions in export and import (43757182)

So, what will 2021 bring for Kent as the Prime Minister Boris Johnson surveys a dramatically different political landscape than this time last year?

To look forward, it is worth looking back and reminding ourselves that a year ago, the fury and rancour over Brexit had dissipated to such an extent that the legislation signing off the UK’s withdrawal from the EU went through the Commons with scarcely a murmur.

The PM was characteristically upbeat in his New Year message back then, depicting a country that was contemplating a “new decade of prosperity.”

Ahead lay negotiations on the precise terms of Brexit but with an 80-seat majority, the government knew it had a relatively secure safety net.

Lorries queue to be the first to leave the UK after Brexit..The United Kingdom officially leaves the EU at 11pm on Thursday 31st December 2021..Dover Harbour, Dover, Kent..Picture: Barry Goodwin. (43791227)
Lorries queue to be the first to leave the UK after Brexit..The United Kingdom officially leaves the EU at 11pm on Thursday 31st December 2021..Dover Harbour, Dover, Kent..Picture: Barry Goodwin. (43791227)

Covid changed everything, of course, and the global flu pandemic continues to cast a long shadow, notwithstanding the good news around vaccines. It had seemed that Kent had swerved the worst of the coronavirus and the health secretary Matt Hancock was lobbied by MPs to ease restrictions on a district by district basis.

But the initially unexplained surge in new cases throughout November and December brought the county into the eye of the storm and alarming graphs showing steepling red lines indicated there was something going wrong.

Dealing with this outbreak will mean that long-awaited plans for the reorganisation of health services will continue to be on the backburner for some time.

By far the greatest challenge for Kent is to weather the expected disruption and delays on the county’s roads and at the Channel ports as Brexit takes effect. There have been a stream of ominous warnings from hauliers that new customs checks and insufficiently tested IT systems will cause mayhem. And the recent blockade by the French authorities at Dover gave more than a hint of how things could unravel quickly.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Paul Grover/Daily Telegraph/PA (43740984)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Paul Grover/Daily Telegraph/PA (43740984)

Emergency planners have spent much of the year refining a variety of options to deal with queueing lorries under Operation Fennel - an over-arching set of plans aimed at mitigating the impact of Brexit, critically on roads.

The recent blockade has put these plans in the spotlight and have left some questions about their effectiveness. But oddly, the scenes of gridlock around the town of Dover may have had some impact in getting hauliers - if they didn’t already - to recognise that changes are coming in, including that Kent Access Permit, the subject of many jokes when it was first unveiled.

In securing a deal at the eleventh hour, Boris Johnson showed that he is not to be under-estimated; and that he has more political guile than he is given credit for.Having said that, the twists and turns of the Covid pandemic have graphically underlined that no political leader can control everything. For every step forward, there has often been two back.

With a renewed focus on his levelling up agenda, he would do well to acknowledge that it is not just those “red wall” constituencies in the north where pernicious inequalities remain.

Strasbourg, France - January 28, 2014: All European Union flags in a row waving in front of the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, Alsace France brexit. (43596722)
Strasbourg, France - January 28, 2014: All European Union flags in a row waving in front of the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, Alsace France brexit. (43596722)

Kent has many of the same problems of deep-seated social disadvantage in certain areas and some of those have been exposed by the coronavirus.

On the county’s status as the Gateway to Europe, Kent is facing the prospect of its two international stations being mothballed as Eurostar axes services to Paris from Ashford and Ebbsfleet until 2022.

As yet, there has been fairly minimal intervention from ministers despite the very vocal opposition from local MPs about the impact on the wider economy.

Other potential flashpoints are planning reforms: while the government has dropped the mutant algorithm that caused palpitations among MPs and council leaders, there remains the threat posed by another shake-up in the system that involves zones being earmarked for certain types of development.

Ashford Brexit lorry park (43737334)
Ashford Brexit lorry park (43737334)

And the Conservatives face a potentially tricky set of local elections in May, after postponing those that were scheduled to take place last year.

In his New Year message, the Prime Minister said the historic split from the EU meant the UK had "freedom in our hands" and the ability to do things "differently and better."

So, while 2021 may not match 2020 for high political drama, it has plenty of potential for unpredictability. And yes, more potential for unprecedented events and political turmoil.

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