Standing in a lorry park in the Port of Dover, Tim Dixon contemplates the prospect of Britain leaving the EU with much unease.
As general manager of Motis Freight Services Agency’s Dover operations, and under a mandate from the UK Border Force, Mr Dixon processes applications for customs clearance from lorry drivers taking freight into continental Europe.
At present, he and his 30-strong staff are almost completely focused on customs paperwork relating to hundreds of lorries that each day take goods to or from non-EU countries such as Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine.
But after Britain leaves the EU, Motis could be landed with the mammoth task of checking details of goods on thousands of lorries that currently travel to or from the bloc’s member states each day without supplying any customs documentation.
“From the 500 or so [lorries going to non-EU countries] that we process now, we could suddenly be doing up to 10,000 a day,” says Mr Dixon, a stocky 51-year-old who has lived in Dover all his life. “I don’t know how we — or Dover itself — could cope with an increase on that scale.”
It is unclear when and how any new customs regime will apply to Dover and other UK ports after Brexit, which is scheduled to take effect in March 2019. Although Britain plans to leave the EU single market and customs union, a new trade relationship with the bloc must be negotiated and this might only come into force after a transitional period.
But as they contemplate the uncertainty ahead, customs experts are agreed on one point: a disorderly Brexit — in which the UK leaves the EU with no deal in March 2019 — would spell disaster. “Catastrophic is the word I would use,” says Mr Dixon. “It puts the shivers up you. It would devastate the local community.”
James Hookham, deputy chief executive of Britain’s Freight Transport Association, says his members fear a no deal scenario would mean “disorganisation and chaos”.
Even if Britain ends up with a benign and orderly Brexit, Dover’s role as the principal artery for trade to and from continental Europe means that a small increase in customs paperwork risks clogging up the port.
The approach to Dover ferry terminal. There is little or no space to expand its port facilities © Getty
Well over half of the 4.5m heavy goods vehicles that travel through British ports every year pass through Dover, and those lorries travelling to destinations within the EU single market and customs union board ferries in under two minutes.
“If you add an average of two minutes to customs processing, you get a 17-mile queue [from Dover] almost back to Ashford,” says Mr Hookham. “Another four minutes takes the queue back to Maidstone, six minutes back to the M25, eight minutes and you are up to the Dartford crossing and Essex.”
Joe Owen, of the Institute for Government, a think-tank, adds: “Dover is set up for what you might call ‘zero friction’ and the introduction of EU customs checks could prove a real headache.”
Dover’s challenges are compounded by the fact that there is little or no space in which to expand its port facilities so as to handle more stationary lorries if they are caught up in increased customs bureaucracy after Brexit.
“There is no room to expand anywhere here,” says Mr Dixon, as he walks through Motis’ lorry park with 300 spaces. “You have the white cliffs on one side, the sea on the other and the town is already occupying the space in the middle.”
Charlie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover, has recognised the huge challenges posed by Brexit by publishing an action plan to avoid gridlock at the port.
He proposes a lorry park accommodating 3,600 HGVs that would be built near the M20 in Kent to reduce congestion around Dover, and new technology at the port to speed processing of customs documentation.
A mural painted by the artist Banksy in Dover earlier this year © Getty
“With proper planning we cannot only be ready on day one, we can make Brexit a real success,” says Mr Elphicke.
However, some business groups and trade experts say any transition period after Brexit will need to last between three and five years if the UK authorities are to put in place the infrastructure to cope with the anticipated increase in customs paperwork.
Theresa May, prime minister, used a keynote Brexit speech in Florence last month to propose a transition of about two years, but this remains a subject of intense debate inside her cabinet. Philip Hammond, chancellor, has spoken of a transition lasting up to three years.
“A transition period should be at least three years,” says Anastassia Beliakova, head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce.
“This is important not just for businesses to prepare, but also for new IT systems to be put in place, for [HM Revenue & Customs] to hire and train new staff, for new infrastructure to be built.”
Mark Corby, chair of the UK Trade Facilitation Expert Panel, which is sponsored by Department for Business, adds: “It will be very tight indeed to get in place the customs systems we need by March 2021, even on the most benign scenario.
“You need three to five years, taking the transition up to 2025, to put in place the untried, streamlined systems ultimately envisaged.”