Millions wasted as Operation Brock replaced with moveable barrier

Dominic Browne

The Government has been criticised for spending tens of millions on Operation Brock on the M20 only to tear it up and replace it with 'a new system' that has been on the market for over a decade and had even previously been used on the same motorway.

Highways can reveal this is the latest in the Department for Transport's botched Brexit preparations, with Highways England conceding that it did not have time to procure the moveable barrier system it will now deploy on the M20, before the Brexit deadline of 29 March 2019.

Highways England was allocated £35m for Operation Brock to help tackle the impact of a no-deal Brexit, and limit congestion on the M20. The vast majority of which (£30m) was for the development and implementation of the infrastructure for the M20 contraflow. The design costs for the contraflow were approximately £4m with the remaining £26m budget is for its implementation.

Following this investment, Highways England then announced in January this year that it had removed the steel barrier without it even being used.

Now a 'new system' will be implemented to deal with traffic at times of cross-channel disruption, which involves a moveable concrete barrier that can be set up within hours using a specialist vehicle. It will 'be available and on standby from later this year', transport secretary Grant Shapps announced.

The move was celebrated for causing less disruption than Operation Brock, which required a month of overnight closures to deploy the metal barrier required for the contraflow system, not to mention Operation Stack, which closed lanes of the M20.

However, industry insiders told Highways this system has been available for more than a decade and was used before on the M20 in 2008.

A Highways England spokesman said: 'We have been constantly reviewing ways to keep Kent’s roads open during cross channel disruption following the closure of the M20 in 2015.

'There is now more capacity in the system using the A50 TAP, and at ports, however, we and Kent partners want the ability to provide more holding capacity as the case for managing disruption has evolved since 2008.

'The machine used in 2008 was at the time the only one of its type available in the UK. The contract was terminated in 2012 as the equipment did not provide a full traffic management capability and was not considered the best use of public money at the time. Moveable Barrier technology has developed considerably in the last ten years and has become more widely used since 2008. The new machine allows faster deployment times and will be integrated into a full traffic management capability.' 

When asked why millions had been spent on Operation Brock if the quick moveable barrier technology was available, Highways England said: 'Quick Moveable Barrier technology was considered, however, we were unable to guarantee procurement time for 29 March 2019, when such a solution would have been required as part of the UK’s departure from the EU under no-deal contingency planning.'

Moveable barriers are already used in cities around the world, including Auckland, Sydney, San Francisco and Vancouver.

Mr Shapps described the technology as 'state-of-the-art' and said it could be deployed 'quickly, simply and safely, ensuring motorists across the county can get to where they need to be with minimum fuss, whatever the circumstances'.

The new solution also means that Highways England’s work on an ‘off-road’ replacement for Operation Stack has been stopped. As part of this, previous Highways England plans for a new large lorry holding area in Kent are no longer being pursued.

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