LONDON — Work has begun to turn a motorway in south east England into a “parking lot” for lorries as part of a plan to prevent traffic chaos in the event of a no-deal Brexit, a senior MP said Thursday.
The plan, which was not disclosed to local councillors or MPs until hours before work began on Wednesday, will see the M26 motorway closed overnight for more than a month in the run-up to Christmas while the roadworks take place.
It marks a major escalation in government preparations for a no-deal Brexit, with talks in Brussels still deadlocked over the question of the Northern Ireland border, and MPs threatening to vote down Theresa Mays plan for the future trading relationship with the EU.
Fears that a no-deal scenario would lead to major delays at the port of Dover for freight crossing the Channel, because of the need for customs and regulatory checks, have led the government to implement major works on motorways near the port in the county of Kent. Under the plan confirmed by Grayling on Thursday, the M26 motorway will become a holding area for hundreds of lorries to allow traffic to move more freely on other roads.
The fact the works were related to Brexit was not disclosed by either the Department for Transport or Highways England, the government-owned company charged with operating Englands motorways, until Wednesday. The motorway will be closed between 10 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. from October 15 to October 19, then from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. from November 19 to December 21.
Local MP Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the foreign affairs committee, expressed fury at the secrecy surrounding the project. Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday morning he said: “Its come to a pretty pass when [an MP] finds out that works have begun on a motorway to turn that motorway into a parking lot without consultation either with the local community or with surrounding [MPs].”
Tugendhat said the works had begun “last night”— despite the fact he was told by Grayling in April that there was no Brexit plan for the M26. Tugendhat added: “Only yesterday was it confirmed to me that Highways England had said that was exactly what was planned, despite having told me the reverse only a week earlier.”
Responding, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, did not counter Tugendhats claim and offered to meet him, adding: “I do not expect any of the contingencies that we have in place for a no deal Brexit to be needed because Im confident we will reach a sensible agreement [with Brussels].”
A Highways England spokesperson said: “As part of wider resilience planning, Highways England has been asked by the Department for Transport to develop plans to utilise the M26 to hold heavy goods vehicles, should further capacity be required in the future.
“We will be undertaking site surveys on the M26 during October leading to the installation of two gates in the central reservation to support the safe management of freight in the future, if needed.”
The Department for Transport declined to comment but provided an additional quote from Highways England: “The work is to install crossover points in the central reservation which can be used to direct traffic onto the opposite carriageway. They are commonplace on motorways and major A roads across the country and help us to manage traffic during incidents.”
A plan called Operation Brock has already led to works on the nearby M20 motorway, to create a contraflow lane to keep roads open if problems arise. Ministers had initially indicated Operation Brock was nothing to do with Brexit, but a Kent County Council report in July revealed the codename stands for “Brexit Operations Across Kent.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated to clarify the answer from Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.