It is a competitive field when it comes to noise, but the sweet birdsong rising up from 27 acres of ragwort, overground grass and dense bramble hedgerows just about wins against the hum of traffic from the nearby M20 in Kent.
But from Monday the victory for wildlife will end as the first machines and crews start work on a 27-acre Brexit customs clearance centre to process lorries coming from the EU into Dover from January, prompting anger from local residents, a Tory MP and other politicians.
It is the first official infrastructure the government has finalised as part of a £705m package to put a Brexit border in place, with new IT systems and 500 extra Border Force officials. On Sunday, Michael Gove denied it amounted to a vast lorry park.
The plans were secret until Friday when the local council was contacted out of the blue by the Department for Transport and told the land was now in public ownership and earmarked for “temporary capacity for the holding of delayed HGVs and facilities for border-related controls to be carried out by government agencies”.
The lack of consultation has triggered anger. Damian Green, the town’s Conservative MP and a former close ally of Boris Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, said he was opposed to the site, tweeting that it was “unfair to Ashford” as it was “too near too many homes”.
“I am strongly opposed to this, and have told ministers this,” Green told Kent Online. In a tweet that was subsequently deleted, he wrote: “No one has suggested using this site as a lorry park in the many years of discussions on the subject, and it is too near too many homes for it to be the right place.”
Gove, the cabinet minister in charge of implementing Brexit, insisted on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme it would not be a “lorry park”, but surveying the site on Sunday, the local Green party spokeswoman Mandy Rossi dismissed his remarks as “semantics”.
“If there is bad weather, or disruption on the tunnel or in Calais, lorries will have to stop somewhere, and even if the customs post only stops one in 100 trucks, that is still a lot as there are 11,500 lorry movements a day to and from Dover,” Rossi said.
Liz Wright, a Green party councillor who represents the nearby Willesborough ward, described the plans “as a complete shock to local residents and … a further nail in the coffin for local democracy”.
The site, branded “Mojo” by the developers, used to be farmland separating the historic Sevington and Mersham villages south-west of Ashford. It was allowed go to seed in the last year amid rumours it had been bought by Amazon.
On Friday the Department for Transport contacted Ashford borough council to say the site was now in public ownership and a letter would be sent to residents telling them work would start on Monday “with fencing, grass and weed vegetation cutting, extensive survey work, the constructing of a temporary site office, and the constructing of a temporary access to the site from the A2070.”
“Plans have not yet been finalised for the use of this site, but [it] is anticipated to form part of the department’s strategy to minimise potential disruption at Kent ports for the end of the transition period,” the letter says.
“This is likely to involve temporary capacity for the holding of delayed HGVs and facilities for border-related controls to be carried out by government agencies (eg HM Revenue and Customs).”
Wright said: “They have imposed this on the community with no notice. The local Ashford borough council has done its best to get the letter out to residents on time for Monday but it’s just a disgraceful way to treat local communities.”
Peter Ricketts, a former diplomat and national security adviser who chairs the Lords EU security and justice sub-committee, branded the plans “pointless”.
This is all so pointless. We are creating a vast customs bureaurocracy (with costs passed on to the consumer) to check goods which already meet the EU standards the UK has contributed to setting over the last four decades. Why? https://t.co/Yh7Pj6NcFX— Peter Ricketts (@LordRickettsP) July 11, 2020
Locals living on a lane that ends at the site are also concerned.
Paul Tomlin said: “In an ideal world this would remain farming land, but we don’t live in ideal times. My concern is the noise, there is going to be a lot of it stop-start from lorries 24/7.”
John Baker, who has been walking in the Sevington area for 26 years, said: “It is devastating for people living here. Ashford has just become a development centre.”
Ashford borough council’s deputy leader, Paul Bartlett, welcomed the plans, saying on Facebook: “A HMRC clearance depot is vastly preferable to the warehouses proposed by [owners] AXA/Friends Life and granted planning consent by ABC in 2015.”