IIt is built on a vast 230-acre site, with a total cost estimated at over £100 million, and has space for 1,700 HGVs. Security personnel are patrolling at various checkpoints around its 12-foot-high perimeter fence. Inside are new buildings and state-of-the-art equipment for inspecting imports from Europe.
But more than six months after its completion, this heavily guarded supposed masterpiece of a newly independent Britain lies all but deserted. People who live nearby label it the great white elephant of Brexit, brand new but largely redundant. The only imports that are inspected are some pets from Ukraine.
Talk to local people about the Sevington Inland Border Facility (IBF) in Kent, and they’ll be beyond despair. No one knows when, or even if, this mammoth testimonial to the UK’s increasingly costly and chaotic exit from the EU will be used for its intended purpose.
Locally, it is said that the IBF will soon be delivered for development in warehouses or homes. Rachel Brown, who lives a stone’s throw from the perimeter, called what had happened “horrendous”: “If they’re not using it, what’s the point? It will be an urbanization in a few years. It’s a complete shame.” Another Sevington resident, Terry, who did not want to give his last name, added: “It’s a hoax, a white elephant. It is quite obvious that no one knew how Brexit was going to turn out or what to do. The result is that we are left with this at the door. The IBFs at Ebbsfleet and Warrington have already closed.
On Friday, a strange truck arrived for HMRC customs checks which are now handled on a small section of the site.
Sevington was built in just over two years primarily to carry out import inspections of EU-originating plant and animal goods, the responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
But the regime of rules for which it was built has never come into effect because of U-turns imposed on government by the nascent realization that trade works best without friction.
The Kent site, just off the M20 near Ashford, is the largest of seven such depots built across the country away from busy ports, in this case Dover.
But as construction work neared completion in 2021, ministers began to have doubts about the effect of onerous controls, as trade with the EU slowed. Last spring, Jacob Rees-Mogg, then the Brexit chances minister, delayed the start of the checks for a fourth time, fearing they would be too bureaucratic and costly for businesses, and cause more congestion on Kent’s roads.
An announcement on which regime will now be introduced is scheduled for early this year. A government spokesman said Sevington would continue to play a key role in “creating a seamless digital frontier”. But it will surely be a touch lighter than previously anticipated, further casting doubt on Sevington’s fitness for purpose.
Defra told the Observer on Friday that it now had “no current operations” in Sevington “except for a small presence” that “was temporarily available to keep pets during the Ukraine response.”
Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, said the Sevington siege was a costly mistake caused by the rush to “get Brexit done” and a lack of foresight of what it would entail.
He and other industry experts had been warning about the problems of operating a hard border for years before Brexit. “The reason for building these places was that the legislators wanted to leave (the EU) quickly to do something, but the actual arrangements, the details that we needed, were not clear. Policymakers have now realized that having a hard border has some consequences we don’t like, which are costly inspections and delays, which hurt business. I think they have realized that we probably don’t need these controls because we have very similar standards to the EU. We just don’t need to do these things. But there is a great cost to the treasury.”
He added: “I think it would have been better for us if we had decided what our departure would be like. You have to understand what the costs and consequences are. There has been a lot of money wasted.”
Defra says it will announce a new program of controls and inspections in the coming weeks. But the tone has changed. Now there is less talk of hard borders and more of reducing friction: the whole idea of the EU single market.
Industry experts say the change in opinion runs deeper, suggesting that ministers are even considering realigning themselves more with EU rules for certain products traded, including those of plant and animal origin.
Sevington is just one piece, though probably the largest, in a post-Brexit jigsaw of new inland and port infrastructure, much of which may never be used. In July 2020, the government announced a £705m funding package for border facilities, jobs and technology. Around £200m was made available to ports to develop their own facilities, which they did, but many now find they cannot use what they have built.
Adjacent to the container terminal at Portsmouth International Harbor is a new £25m high-tech border checkpoint, the cost of which was covered jointly by Portsmouth City Council and the taxpayer. Like Sevington, it was supposed to carry out checks on imports of animal and plant products arriving from the EU.
Ballantyne says that places like Portsmouth now have their own “white elephants.” They were hoping to finance their operating and personnel costs by charging for inspections that they are now unable to do. “They are stuck. The government will not compensate the sector for operating costs. They will not finance the demolition of said infrastructure. We are very frustrated by this,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Port of Dover received a £45m investment last week from the government’s equalization fund (originally intended to help disadvantaged parts of the UK) to improve the flow of traffic from the UK to the EU and reduce congestion on local roads after the war. Brexit. The leveling secretary, Michael Gove, who, like Rees-Mogg, had insisted that Brexit would be good news for the UK economy, found that it actually comes at a very high cost to his own and the British budget. taxpayers