A Balfour Beatty joint venture has been drafted in by Highways England to prepare the M26 to function as a lorry park if Britain fails to secure a Brexit deal.
The motorway closed overnight on Wednesday to allow for surveying works to take place on the carriageway ahead of further works that are planned to start next month. The joint venture is formed of Balfour Beatty, Atkins and Egis Road Operation UK.
The 16 km stretch of motorway connecting the M25 south of London to the M20 in Kent will remain closed from 10pm to 5am until Monday 15 October, and will be closed again overnight from 19 November to 21 December.
The works have sparked anger from local MP Tom Tugendhat, who claimed he had been assured only last week that works would not be taking place.
In a heated exchange in the Commons with transport secretary Chris Grayling, Mr Tugendhat said: “It’s come to a pretty pass when a member finds out that works have begun on a motorway to turn that motorway into a parking lot without consultation either with the local community or with surrounding members.
“The M26 works started last night. I wrote [to Mr Grayling] in April, asking whether or not this would happen.
“I was assured the works were not planned and only yesterday [Wednesday] was it confirmed to me that Highways England had said that is exactly what was planned, despite having told me the reverse a week earlier.”
The transport secretary offered to meet privately with Mr Tugendhat to discuss the issue, stating: “I do not expect any of the contingencies that we have in place for a no-deal Brexit to be needed, because I’m confident we will reach a sensible agreement.”
A spokesperson for the Balfour Beatty joint venture said: ‘We can confirm that Connect Plus Services, a joint venture between Balfour Beatty, Atkins and Egis Road Operation UK, has been undertaking site surveys on the M26 on behalf of Highways England. As part of the ECI stage, these works commenced overnight on Wednesday 10th October with the last set of surveys due to take place tonight, Friday 12th October”.
In a statement, Highways England said: “As part of wider resilience planning, Highways England has been asked by the Department for Transport to develop plans to utilise the M26 to hold heavy goods vehicles, should further capacity be required in the future.
“We will be undertaking site surveys on the M26 during October leading to the installation of two gates in the central reservation to support the safe management of freight in the future, if needed.”
The closure of the M26 forms part of the DfT’s Operation Brock that will see several logistical and planning steps taken ahead of the UK’s departure from the EU, including using the M26 as a lorry park.
The contingency plans aim to handle the queues of thousands of lorries destined for the EU that may be held up by extra checks at Dover.
A further section of the M20 in Kent between Maidstone and Ashford is also being considered as a holding ground for heavy goods vehicles.
In 2015 French strike action caused delays at Dover that resulted in a 45 km tailback involving 4,500 lorries on the M20, with the delays costing the economy an estimated £250m a day, the BBC reported.
In July, Dover council warned that the M20 could be disrupted for “up to 20 years” in the worst-case scenario.
A report for the council stated that: “A 13-mile stretch of the coast-bound section of the M20, between junction eight near Maidstone and junction nine near Ashford, will be earmarked to hold heavy goods vehicles, in what will effectively become a giant temporary lorry park holding around 2,000 lorries.
“It is likely a permanent solution will not be in place for many years if enacted through current planning processes and procedures.”
In November last year, plans for a £250m lorry park to be built by Balfour Beatty were scrapped after the government decided against defending a judicial review of the scheme.
Balfour Beatty had won the deal, worth up to £130m, in May 2016 to build the new lorry park near the M20 under an early contractor involvement contract.
Balfour Beatty has been contacted for comment.