It is built on a vast 230-acre site, with a total cost put at more than £100m, and has space for 1,700 heavy goods vehicles. Security staff are on patrol at several checkpoints around its 12-foot-high perimeter fence. Inside are new state-of-the-art buildings and equipment for inspecting imports from Europe.
But more than six months after completion, this heavily guarded supposed showpiece of a newly independent Britain lies all but deserted. It is labelled by people who live nearby as the great white elephant of Brexit, spanking new but largely redundant. The only imports being inspected are a few pets from Ukraine.
Talk to local people about the Sevington inland border facility (IBF) in Kent, and they are beyond despair. No one knows when, or even if, this giant testament to the UK’s increasingly costly and chaotic exit from the EU will ever be used for its intended purpose.
Locally, the word is that the IBF will soon be turned over for development into warehouses or housing. Rachel Brown, who lives a stone’s throw from the perimeter, said what had happened was “horrendous”: “If they are not using it what is the point? It will be a housing estate in a few years. It is a complete disgrace.” Another Sevington resident, Terry, who did not want to give his surname, added: “It is a farce, a white elephant. It is quite obvious no one knew how Brexit was going to turn out or what to do. The result is we are left with this on the doorstep.” IBFs at Ebbsfleet and Warrington have already been closed.
On Friday the odd lorry trundled in for HMRC customs checks which are now handled in a small section of the site.
Sevington was built in little over two years mainly to conduct import inspections on goods of plant and animal original from the EU, a responsibility of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
But the regime of rules it was built to administer has never come into force because of U-turns forced on government by the dawning realisation that trade operates better without friction.
The Kent site, just off the M20 near Ashford, is the biggest of seven such depots constructed across the country away from busy ports – in this case Dover.
But when building work was nearing completion in 2021, ministers started having doubts about the effect of burdensome checks, as trade with the EU declined. Last spring Jacob Rees-Mogg, then minister for Brexit opportunities, delayed the start of checks for the fourth time, fearing they would be too bureaucratic and costly for businesses, and cause more tailbacks on Kent’s roads.
An announcement on what regime will now be introduced is scheduled for early this year. A government spokesperson said Sevington would still play a key role in “creating a seamless, digital border”. But it is certain to be a lighter touch one than that previously envisaged, putting Sevington’s suitability for purpose further in doubt.
Defra told the Observer on Friday that it now had “no current operations” at Sevington “except a small presence” which “was temporarily available for holding pets during the Ukraine response”.
Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, said the Sevington site was a costly mistake caused by the rush to “get Brexit done” and a failure to foresee what it would entail.
He and other industry experts had been warning about problems of operating a hard border for years before Brexit. “The reason for building these places was that policymakers wanted to leave (the EU) quickly to get something done but the actual arrangements, the nuts and bolts we needed, were not clear. Policymakers have now realised there are some consequences to having a hard border which we don’t like, which are costly inspections and delays, which harm business.
"I think they have realised we probably don’t need to have these checks because we have very similar standards to the EU. We simply don’t need to do these things. But there is a big cost to the exchequer.”
He added: “I think it would have been better for us if we had decided what our departure would look like. You have got to understand what the costs and consequences are. There has been a lot of wasted money.”
Defra says it will announce a new programme of controls and inspections in the next few weeks. But the tune has changed. There is less talk now of hard borders, more of reducing friction – the whole idea of the EU single market.
Industry experts say the change of mind runs deeper, and suggest ministers are even considering moving back to closer alignment with EU rules for certain traded products, including those of plant and animal origin.
Sevington is just one piece – albeit probably the biggest – 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. About £200m of this was made available for ports to develop their own facilities, which they did, but many now find they cannot use what they’ve built.
Next to the container terminal at Portsmouth International Port, is a new hi-tech £25m border control post, the cost of which was met 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 places such as Portsmouth now have their own “white elephants”. They had hoped to fund the running and staff costs from charging for inspections which they now cannot do. “They are stuck. Government will not compensate the sector for the operating costs. They will not finance the demolishing of such infrastructure. We are very frustrated by this,” he said.
Meanwhile, the port of Dover received a £45m investment last week from the government’s levelling up fund (originally envisaged to help deprived parts of the UK) to improve the flow of traffic from the UK to the EU and reduce congestion on local roads post-Brexit.
The levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, who, like Rees-Mogg, had insisted that Brexit would be all good news for the UK economy, has found that in reality it comes at a very heavy cost to his own budget as well as to British taxpayers.