An old military airfield near the Scottish town of Stranraer has been earmarked as an emergency lorry park in case of major delays at ferry terminals linking the country with Northern Ireland.
Transport Scotland, a government agency, has been struggling to find space to stack lorries if there are significant hold-ups at two ferry terminals at Cairnryan, to the alarm of freight operators.
The terminals carry about 400,000 freight vehicles and 400,000 cars a year between Scotland and Larne and Belfast in Northern Ireland. There are fears that delays there would cause gridlock on the area’s main roads, the A77 and A75, which are both single lane.
Transport Scotland told the Guardian it has an agreement in principle with the Earl of Stair about using Castle Kennedy, a second world war RAF training base and now an unlicensed airfield used by light aircraft, which he owns, about five miles east of Stranraer, as a make-shift lorry park for up to 240 HGVs.
It is understood Transport Scotland is also in the final stages of buying land to allow access to the airfield, which sits next to the A75 arterial route linking Stranraer to the M6 just north of Carlisle.
The authorities had hoped they could use old port facilities in Stranraer itself, setting aside space for up to 300 lorries at a time, but that was rejected over concerns about congestion and disruption affecting residents and shops in the town centre.
Scottish officials say the delays finalising the plans is largely due to uncertainty about the UK government’s modelling of the impact the new post-Brexit customs system for Northern Ireland will have on freight levels and ferry boarding times.
“It has become extremely challenging to plan for this: we haven’t had the details and modelling to plan,” said one Scottish source, who insisted wider contingency plans to cope with delays were close to being finalised.
Martin Reid, Scottish director for the Road Haulage Association, said P&O and Stenaline, the ferry operators at Cairnryan, were confident they could manage delays at their terminals, but that he was unconvinced.
There were still significant uncertainties about the customs paperwork hauliers needed, and the speed of customs inspections of loads such as animal feed and dairy products, he said, which all impacted on contingency planning.
“It’s in the mix with everything else we are concerned about,” Reid said. “There’s just so much that is unknown just now. [And] we’re running out of time for these answers to come back to us.”
Elaine Murray, the leader of Dumfries and Galloway council, said she was surprised no details about the final contingency plans were available. “Stacking lorries on the A75, for example, would be unacceptable,” she said. “I am also concerned that there are no details from the UK government regarding the site of Border Control posts.”
Details of the plan for Stranraer emerged as it was revealed that the Kent lorry park designed to relieve queues of up to 7,000 trucks taking goods across the Channel would not be ready for Brexit customs controls on 1 January.
Damian Green, the MP for Ashford, said the government told him rain had hampered work on the site between the villages of Sevington and Mersham, fuelling fears of traffic queues around the county for the first two months of the year.
“They’ve said it should be for a maximum of up to eight weeks from January – so it should be finished by the end of February – but they are committed to the Sevington site as the permanent base,” he told Kent Online.
The site was acquired by the government in July and is due to act as a holding pen for lorries queueing to get into Dover and possibly leaving the port, and also to allow HM Revenue & Customs to conduct checks.
Green said another site would now be used. “Because of the rain, they are going to stand up the nearby Waterbrook site and operate it as a common transit convention site. HMRC activities that would’ve taken place at Sevington will be carried out there instead,” he said.
Heavy rain in recent weeks has meant a race against time to get the lorry park finished with work continuing round the clock.
The Department for Transport confirmed it would now switch the initial checks to Waterbrook.
The decision came as a third car company, BMW, temporarily halted production ahead of Brexit, just weeks after Honda and Jaguar made similar moves. It confirmed its Oxford factory stopped producing Minis on Friday for four weeks. But a spokesman said it was for general upgrade of the plant and not because of Brexit.
The company said it has had its Brexit contingencies in place for almost two years with more than 3m parts warehoused, enough for around a day and a half of production.