Campaigners claim there is ‘no chance’ of agreeing quick out-of-court settlement to speed up Operation Stack lorry park plans
PUBLISHED: 16:46 26 October 2017 | UPDATED: 17:06 26 October 2017
Damian Collins urged the government to come to an agreement after a judicial review stalled construction of the £250m project, but the parish council chair has slammed the government for not acting swiftly enough
Calls for the government to agree a swift out-of-court settlement with campaigners to speed up plans for a lorry park to deal with the problems caused by Operation Stack have been dismissed by protesters.
Folkestone and Hythe MP Damian Collins told a Westminster debate this week he wanted to see ministers act quickly to resolve an ongoing dispute between the Department for Transport and villagers affected by the proposals in Stanford, near junction 11 of the M20.
Campaigners argue that Stack - the queuing of lorries on the motorway when there is disruption at the ports - has not reared its head for more than two years, and that one large park, the size of Disneyland, would not solve the issues when it is enforced.
They told us they were not wholly against the idea of a settlement, in which various mitigating factors for the project would be met, but accused the government of moving too slowly to strike a deal.
A judicial review, delayed by Theresa May’s snap general election and now scheduled for early December, has halted all progress on the controversial plans.
Mr Collins said: “The location and choice of the site has the support of the district council and in the consultation conducted by Highways England, it received majority support from the respondents.
“Nevertheless, the location of a piece of major infrastructure like that is not to be taken lightly and clearly causes concern and disruption for the people that live close to it.
“I think it has been incumbent upon the government to work with the local community to try and put those concerns at rest - to make it clear that it intends to carry through with its plan to build the lorry park so that we can end the bite of Operation Stack, and give the country the national infrastructure it needs and the resilience to protect this important and strategic route.
“But also that it reaches a settlement with the people that live close to it and are most directly affected.”
A handful of residents, living either on the site itself or on the boundaries, are understood to have taken up discretionary offers to move from the government but a number of others still remain in their homes.
At the crux of this particular dispute is Westenhanger Castle, a business run as a venue for events and weddings, which believes it would be blighted by the building of the lorry park.
Addressing transport minister John Hayes, Mr Collins added: “There has been considerable negotiation between the department and the castle owner with regards to their judicial review application.
“Effectively the consequence of the judicial review application, in addition to the general election and other delays, has meant that a year has been lost.
“I would like to ask that the minister will commit that, rather than waiting for the judicial review to take place in early December, a last attempt is had to negotiate...so that a settlement can be reached and the judicial review application withdrawn.
“That would enable work to start on the lorry park and also for the business owner to receive the compensation he is due so that he can move on.
“Given it has always been stated by the prime minister and ministers that it’s the government’s intention to build the lorry park to give us the resilience we need, I see no reason why the discretionary purchase of properties in Stanford village cannot continue so that residents are not trapped in limbo, but can instead reach a reasonable settlement with the department and then move on in their own lives.”
However, Stanford Parish Council chair Matthew Webb, who has been at the forefront of the battle against the project, said he and colleagues had provided the DfT with a document back in January outlining commitments they wanted the government to make, but had failed to receive a response.
“I don’t think they will come to us with anything now, given the pace they move at is glacial,” he told KentNews.co.uk.
“It would take them between now and December to start negotiating. There’s no chance of anything before the judicial review. They have done absolutely nothing in the last 10 months.”
Despite this, Cllr Webb said members were “pragmatists”, accepted the odds were stacked in the government’s favour, and that a settlement was possibly in theory.
“From a realistic point of view, if we could get the commitments we wanted, or the vast majority of them, and remove the uncertainty, that would be better than losing and the government building whatever they want,” he added.
“Residents want us to fight it because if it’s built they fear it will become so many other things.
“If they made serious commitments, residents might not like it but it would not be as scary – the uncertainty is the big scare factor.”
At Wednesday’s debate, also attended by Maidstone and the Weald MP Helen Grant, government chief Mr Hayes refused to explicitly acknowledge whether he would accelerate settlement negotiations.
He said: “It’s very important we offer the kind of reassurance sufficient to persuade those [Mr Collins] represents and others that the government is both serious about these matters and acting with honour.
“The government is in a difficult position because this is subject to judicial proceedings and it would be quite wrong for me to stray beyond the parameters that have been set for me.
“On the basis I will both meet with and write to [Mr Collins] promptly along the lines he has described, I hope he will accept that as not only a gesture but a substantial pledge of goodwill.
“His advocacy of the interests of the people directly concerned is beyond question and it’s quite proper to consider that support for those residents, and I’m more than happy to explore that with him.”