Guston villagers find their feet, as Government trips over theirs

Anthea Simmons, editor of our sister title West Country Bylines, explains how, after months of feeling helpless, Guston residents, in their fight against Government plans to build an inland border facility (IBF) lorry park on their doorstep, have been given hope from an unlikely source in Devon.

Guston is a village of fewer than 2000 inhabitants not far from Dover. The Department for Transport (DfT) has decided to slap one of its IBFs on the village outskirts, on 37 hectares of farmland, which it is cynically naming the White Cliffs IBF.

Kent Bylines first reported on this dilemma facing Guston residents in January, and updated the story a month later.

The White Cliffs IBF site, which sits alongside the A2, is to act as a location for starting and ending transit movements of goods from the UK. It includes parking areas for HGVs and other vehicles, as well as security measures and facilities to enable vehicles and goods entering and exiting to be checked. All this infrastructure is necessary as a consequence of Brexit and the UK’s departure from the Single Market and the Customs Union

Unsurprisingly, the denizens of Guston were less than thrilled by the news. Theirs is a peaceful, historic hamlet and the idea of thousands of lorries rocking up every day is not an appealing one. They weren’t encouraged to warm to the idea when the government’s ‘engagement process’ got underway without them having any information on  which to ‘engage’.

Special Development Orders

What’s more, the use of the new Special Development Orders appeared to allow the DfT to bypass the usual planning progress, left them feeling powerless. The consultation process was clearly just a box-ticking exercise and it looked as if it was game over for any resistance to the scheme before it could even begin. Where would they find the money to take on the government? They wrote letters, asked questions, got a petition together, but every attempt to get answers was met by stony silence.

Luckily for them, a planning expert based in Devon caught wind of their plight. Unhappy at the cavalier treatment of the locals, but even more concerned that laws were being ignored or bypassed, the expert offered her services at no cost in the interests of justice.

For starters, the government are in breach of the UN’s Aarhus Convention, to which we are signatories. In short, this gives everyone the right of access to environmental information, and to allow for public participation in environmental decision-making, plus the right of access to justice if the first two conditions are not met.

Asking for comments without the necessary information clearly did not comply. She helped draft a request for more detailed information. This document was received in reply.

Hardly detailed – and caveated with ‘subject to change’ – but it gave them enough to mount their case.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive

The expert from Devon moved on to the use of the Special Development Order. The EU introduced the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive over 20 years ago and the UK has adopted the Directive into law. An EIA covers the impact of a project on the environment, identifies measures needed to mitigate this impact where necessary and specifies how that mitigation will be monitored to ensure it is effective. It provides significant protection for humans and the natural world alike.

The farmland that is set to be buried under tarmac (allegedly only for the five-year duration of this temporary facility) is sequestering carbon, plays a crucial role in managing water run-off, provides a local amenity (dog walkers and ramblers use the National Trail which runs across the land) and includes a small Saxon cemetery and Roman road.

An EIA must be completed on a project of this size and scale. In this instance, the threshold of 250 extra lorries per day would be enough in itself to warrant an assessment of sorts. Guston Village can actually expect some 6,660 extra vehicles every day! This definitely puts it into the realm of EIA!

Knockout blow against the Government?

But the knockout blow, in favour of Guston and against the Government, is that a law it introduced itself in 2019 specifies that a Special Development Order (SDO) cannot be used for any development larger than 5 hectares. The White Cliffs project is 37 hectares, way larger than the government’s own conditions for triggering an EIA. It has to undergo an EIA.

The Parish Councillors of Guston had also assumed that they could deal with only the DfT in this matter. But again, the planning expert was able to set the record straight. The decision to invoke an EIA rests with Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The final clause of the EIA Regulations 2017 does give some defence against his methods, since it states that there must be ‘no political interference’.

Screening Direction and a Case Number

This is all well and good, but how to get the Government to accept that the project falls into the category for an EIA? Inside knowledge paid off once again. It turns out that anyone can ask for a ‘Screening Direction’ which will establish whether an EIA is required.

An application was sent to the National Planning Casework Unit in Birmingham and now has a case number. This unit comes under the Planning Inspectorate and, ultimately, Jenrick, The Unit is meant to be autonomous. We shall see.

EIA critical

If Guston gets its EIA which it should – how could it not? – the project will have to be withdrawn. “What have always been difficult to manage are the late notice, the sudden impact, and the distraught residents who were informed at the 11th hour by the Department for Transport that Guston, a small village not far from Dover port, had been chosen to accommodate an Inland Border Facility,” said Councillor Tracey Creed BEM, Chair of Guston Parish Council. “It was just dropped into our laps from above, with no consultation or consideration. From 27 October 2020, Guston Parish Council has been locked in a battle, tirelessly working to extract information from the Department for Transport and desperately seeking support from our District and County Councillors. We are a Parish Council that will fight for what is right, we have no political affiliation, and therefore our concerns are for our village and community.”

Creed continued: “The whole process has been stressful, exhausting and infuriating. Overnight we have had to be prepared to engage on issues with pollution, environment, traffic management, safety, and planning, to name a few, whilst doing our best to support residents whose properties directly affected by this proposal are confronted with surveyor reports detailing £100k devaluations. Is this fair treatment?

“We have no rights, we have no support, all we have is an SDO…….so we greatly thank our Devon planning expert who appeared as a ray of light offering us advice and help during this very dark period.”

One thing is for certain – the DfT is beginning to feel the heat. Why should private individuals, volunteers and parish councillors be put in a position where they cannot trust their government to act within the law? And where would Guston be if the Devon volunteer had not stepped up to the plate? Not everyone can hire lawyers or pay experts.

Riding roughshod over the law and attempting to blag it are becoming hallmarks of this government. It is behaviour that has to stop.