Ashford residents resign themselves to the realities of Brexit

The definitive Pevsner guide to the buildings of England describes the pretty parish church of St Mary’s, Sevington, near Ashford, as “lonely and a little forlorn”. Built of Kent’s local ragstone, the 900-year-old structure sits down a cul-de-sac, severed from its parishioners by busy roads to its west and north.

Yet Brexit is about to compound that isolation. In the next few weeks, workers will drive construction equipment on to a field east of the church’s graveyard. They will start building facilities for customs checks on trucks heading to the busy Channel crossings at Dover and the Channel tunnel.

With less than six months to the end of Britain’s Brexit transition period, the UK this week announced plans for managing the new border that will be needed regardless of the outcome of the future relationship talks between Brussels and London.

Even with a Canada style zero tariffs, zero quotas deal, the UK will leave the European single market and single customs area once the transition is over on December 31, meaning businesses will need to make a projected 215m more customs declarations annually.

Although Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister overseeing preparations for the end of the UK’s decades long membership of the EU single market and customs union, has said the government is looking at five Kent sites for post-Brexit “traffic management”, much of the early focus has fallen on this field in Sevington.

News of the plans for the site leaked out on July 10 with the Department for Transport completing the purchase for an undisclosed sum on July 15.

The move has left residents in Mersham, the village most affected, asking why the site for the facility has been chosen on their doorstep, rather than somebody else’s, and bemoaned the lack of information about the government’s plans.

Sharon Swandale of The Village Alliance stands next to a Kent site recently bought by the UK government to be used as a customs facility © Charlie Bibby/FT

“They’ve got to find somewhere quickly and they haven’t got time to discuss it,” said one woman in Mersham’s village shop, who declined to be identified. “How come that’s right?”

However, there was also some guarded acceptance — explained partly by the long lines of wheat growing on part of the land bought by the government. Ministers have assured residents they will leave two-thirds of the 90-acre site as farmland and have promised no trucks will be stored on the site except during exceptional disruption.

Some residents said they preferred the customs plan to a proposed warehouse development for Amazon, the online retailer, that had previously looked likely.

Sharon Swandale, a committee member of The Village Alliance, which has campaigned to protect the fields, said locals would be watching to see if ministers stick to their commitments. “It all comes down to trust,” she said.

Kate Stewart of Ransley Turf, Mersham, Kent © Charlie Bibby/FT

The traffic noise in St Mary’s overgrown churchyard also helps to explain the acceptance of some residents. People in the Ashford area are by now well accustomed to the role it plays as a corridor between the UK and mainland Europe.

Vast numbers of trucks have often had to park on the roads because of strikes or bad weather affecting Channel crossings. The introduction of customs checks between the UK and mainland Europe from late on December 31 could produce similar or worse hold-ups.

Nevertheless, Kate Stewart was worried any new disruption could hamper suppliers’ deliveries to Ransley Turf, her business, based in Mersham. She would have preferred the checks were conducted seven miles down the M20 at Stanford, where ministers five years ago planned a truck park. Those plans were abandoned after a successful legal challenge.

“It has to go somewhere and nobody wants it on their doorstep, I suppose,” Ms Stewart said. “[But] there’s a lot of houses round here. It is a bit of green land that’s left in Ashford.”

Stuart Ramsay, proprietor of Ransley Kennels, a kennel and cattery business near the new facility, feared the construction work and subsequent truck movements could deter customers. Mersham has already endured two years of disruption during the still unfinished work to complete a new junction on the M20 that trucks going to and from the new facility will use.

“I think villagers have had enough, to be honest,” Mr Ramsay said. “Everybody has moved here to a quiet little village — now we’re being strangled.”

Stuart Ramsay, owner of Ransley House Kennels © Charlie Bibby/FT

The borough of Ashford voted 59-41 in favour of leaving the EU, however. The woman in Mersham Stores said she would have opted for Brexit even if she had known during the 2016 referendum that it would bring such a large facility to the village’s edge.

“It’s the immigration we need to get on top of,” the woman said. “We can’t just let everybody in all the time.”

The Department for Transport said the new project formed part of its “ongoing plans” to ensure the free flow of freight.

“We will be working closely with community leaders to ensure local residents and businesses are kept informed as plans progress,” the department said.

The fate of St Mary’s church helped to make up many residents’ minds. Ms Swandale pointed out that Amazon had planned 17m-tall warehouses. They would have blocked treasured views of the ancient place of worship and its steeple — a rare octagonal design.

If ministers respected the ancient church, it could be far better preserved for future centuries, Ms Swandale added hopefully.

“If this is done to the highest specification possible and local people are informed of what is happening, this can be very good,” she said. “[But] they must keep their promises.”

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