SEVINGTON – Four years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Brexit can still seem abstract. But in the county known as the Garden of England, it is literally taking concrete form.
Just beyond the ancient oaks and yews that surround medieval St. Mary's Church in the village of Sevington, bulldozers, dump trucks and cement mixers swarm noisily over a field. They are chewing up land to create part of Britain’s new border with the European Union — a customs clearance depot with room for up to 2,000 trucks.
No one asked local people for permission, and even in this Brexit-backing area, the disruption is straining support for the U.K.'s rupture with the EU.
“The first anyone knew about it was when a sign went up saying the footpaths had been closed,” said Sharon Swandale, whose home in the village of Mersham used to be a 20-minute walk from Sevington. Closure of the path for construction work means it’s now an almost 4-mile (6.4-kilometer) drive.
This county, Kent, voted by 60%-40% to leave the EU in Britain’s 2016 referendum, but Swandale said visions of truck stops and customs depots were not uppermost in their minds.
“That was never part of the actual selling and the marketing for Brexit,” she said.
The two prosperous villages of Sevington and Mersham are 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the Channel Tunnel to France and 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Britain’s biggest ferry port at Dover. Between them, the two routes carry 4 million trucks a year, filled with food and all manner of other essential items.
Those goods moved back and forth freely while Britain was part of the EU’s single market and customs union. The U.K. left the bloc’s political structures in January, and will make an economic break when a transition period ends Dec. 31. That means Britain must erect a customs border with the 27-nation EU, its biggest trading partner.
Opponents of Brexit say it is a waste of money and effort that will hurt businesses on both sides. For supporters, it’s all part of taking back control of the country’s borders and trade.
But everyone agrees it means new red tape, with the need for customs declarations and inspections. If the U.K. and the EU fail to strike a free trade deal before the end of the year, tariffs will be slapped on many goods, bringing more disruption, bureaucracy and expense.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government has been reluctant to disclose details of its border plans. But last month it admitted its “reasonable worst-case scenario” involved “7,000 port-bound trucks in Kent and associated maximum delays of up to two days.”
The government’s plans for limiting the disruption include converting parts of a highway into a temporary parking lot for trucks, and imposing a “Kent access pass” — essentially a passport that truckers heading for the EU must have to enter Kent from other parts of Britain.
The Sevington site is intended for customs checks, and could also be a “temporary traffic management facility” — a parking lot — for trucks if there are border delays, the government says.
The 27-acre field is one of 10 sites around the country earmarked for potential border infrastructure, under powers the government has given itself to buy and build without consulting local authorities or residents first.
“Up to now no local resident has seen the plans,” said Rick Martin, chairman of Sevington parish council, adding that locals are worried about gridlock and the effect the site will have on property prices.
“People are quite perplexed at the moment about what it’s going to look like when there’s 1,000 lorries parked across the road,” he said.
Sevington and Mersham are ancient settlements, mentioned in the 1086 census known as the Domesday Book, but the residents can’t be said to reject modern life. They already live with the hum of traffic on the M20 highway that cuts through the area, and the sound of trains whooshing at 185 mph (300 kph) toward the Channel Tunnel.
That makes them even more determined to preserve the remaining rural character of their communities.
With the support of local politicians, villagers are trying to limit the damage by saving an adjoining field, also bought by the government but not yet slated for development. It’s the last green space between them and the sprawling town of Ashford nearby.
“It would be the perfect place to save as a green buffer between all the development here and the village,” said Swandale, a member of the Village Alliance, a local campaigning group.
Construction has already chased off the skylarks that used to inhabit the future customs site. Swandale says preserving the other field could save great crested newts and dormice and the paths used by walkers, cyclists and horse riders.
“It’s taking back control,” she said, echoing the Brexiteer slogan. “It’s having this for the local people, it’s using it. It’s planting trees to reduce carbon, it’s increasing its biodiversity. … It would go a long way to mitigate this development.”
Britons still don’t know whether New Year’s Day 2021 will bring the government’s worst-case scenario or a smoother exit. Talks on a U.K.-EU trade deal are deadlocked over fishing rights and fair-competition rules. At a summit this week, EU leaders will assess whether a breakthrough is possible. There are only weeks left to seal a deal if it is to be ratified by year's end.
Paul Bartlett, a Conservative member of Kent County Council who lives right beside the huge construction site, acknowledges the customs facility on his doorstep came as a surprise. But as a staunch supporter of Brexit, he is determined to see the positive side of the new customs site.
“We need jobs," he said, after the coronavirus pandemic plunged the U.K. into recession. "I hope we’ll have 300 jobs and there’s a good system of apprenticeships that young people can sign up to and develop a career for themselves.
“It’s a beautiful part of the country to live in, and sometimes you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth.”