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Department for Transport rules out new contract with Manston owners

The Department for Transport (DfT) says it will not be maintaining Manston airport as an emergency lorry park after its six-month contract with the owners ends.

The site was used during the recent crisis that saw gridlock in Dover over Christmas and the New Year.

Lorries at Manston Picture: UKNIP
Lorries at Manston Picture: UKNIP

Thousands of hauliers were prevented from crossing the Channel because of the closure of the borders by the French authorities.

Many were diverted to Manston to have tests for the coronavirus after the shutdown was lifted but the French authorities said all HGV drivers needed proof of a negative test taken within the previous 72 hours.

In a statement, a DfT spokesman said: "The government secured use of the Manston Airport site as a temporary measure to manage traffic at the border from January 1, 2021 to the end of June 2021.

"We continue to work with the Kent Resilience Forum to ensure they have the support needed to manage extreme traffic congestion in Kent."

It is understood the DfT is likely to use the Sevington site in Ashford to hold lorries but its capacity to do so is far lower than Manston and its main focus is as a customs checking point.

There was lorry chaos at Manston in December
There was lorry chaos at Manston in December

However, officials are understood to consider that the risks of another major event are low and that the flow of traffic is now almost returned to pre-Brexit levels.

The use of Manston proved critical during the period of gridlock in Dover and at one point, it was being used to hold 4,000 lorries.

The announcement that the government no longer considers it necessary to keep the option of Manston open has sparked concerns that in the event of a similar event, there will be no alternative site with equal capacity.

A report by county council officials states: "DfT currently have no plans to extend the lease of the Manston site which will leave Kent without the necessary infrastructure to respond to large scale congestion.

"The deployment of all stages of Op Stack is compromised by the inclusion of the Sevington site.”

Manston airport has been shut for years
Manston airport has been shut for years

It says that a search has begun and a new plan is required. “Officers are working with DfT and Highways England to identify options and these will be reported to members as they are developed.”

A KCC spokesman added: “The Kent Resilience Forum will be writing to ministers requesting that the Department for Transport works with Kent partners on future plans for traffic management in the county.”

Last month, Manston was in the media spotlight amid revelations of drug-taking, illicit sex and fake Covid results by staff working there.

Meanwhile, it appears that from this weekend, there will be a change to the current arrangements for freight travelling to the ports.

The reducing demand for tests clears the way forward for a change to the traffic plans, with all freight to be directed to use the M20, in line with the revised Operation Brock plans.

"What the last couple of months have shown us is that Sevington is working well and much better than many feared."

Ashford MP Damian Green downplayed concerns that Sevington, which is due to become fully operational this weekend, could not hold as many HGVs.

"What the last couple of months have shown us is that Sevington is working well and much better than many feared," he said.

"A combination of Sevington and Operation Brock works although obviously there would be increasing pressure on it without Manston.

"On the other hand, using Sevington which is just off the M20 is better than using roads unsuitable for lorries to get to Manston."

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