A major motorway in the South East will be closed every night for almost six weeks so it can be turned into a giant lorry park if Britain leaves the EU without a deal.
Initially it was not made clear to drivers why the motorway was being shut down overnight for so long.
But the real reason emerged in parliament yesterday when a Tory MP revealed work began on Wednesday night to turn the M26 into a ‘parking lot’.
Highways England confirmed it has been asked by the Department for Transport to look at how the M26 in Kent can be modified in case there are major hold-ups at Dover.
Ministers and manufacturers, including car makers, are worried that a failure to strike a deal with Brussels could lead to hold-ups for freight crossing the channel because of the need for extra customs and regulatory checks.
Staff at Highways England are now conducting surveys to establish exactly how the M26, which connects the M25 around London to the M20 running towards Dover, can be converted into a lorry park.
Similar work is already being done on the M20 under a project codenamed Operation Brock.
Tom Tugendhat, Tory MP for Tonbridge and Malling, said his community was kept in the dark about the M26 work after a receiving a personal assurance from Mr Grayling several months ago that nothing was planned.
Speaking in the Commons yesterday, 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.’
He added: ‘ I was assured the works were not planned and only yesterday 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.’
He urged Mr Grayling to explain how the planning permission was granted with ‘no consultation’.
Mr Grayling said he would be happy to discuss the issue with Mr Tugendhat but stressed he did not expect any of the no-deal Brexit contingencies to be required as he believes a deal will be struck with Brussels.
The M26, will close down every night until Monday and in the run up to Christmas between November 19 and December 21 while the work is being carried out.
Drivers face disruption, with diversions in place via the M25 and M20.
Highways England said two gates will be installed on the M26 in the central reservation which will allow vehicles to cross over onto the opposite carriageway if the lorry park needs to be used.
It marks an expansion of Operation Brock, which will also allow lorries to park along a 13 mile stretch of the nearby M20 between junction eight near Maidstone and junction nine near Ashford. This involves changing traffic flows on the coast-bound M20 to allow lorries to queue in the event of customs delays caused by a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
Under the plan, four lanes of the southbound M20 will be effectively be turned in a ‘lorry park’ for 2000 vehicles. The northbound carriageway would remain open, with a contraflow used to allow vehicles to travel in both directions.
It is not yet known exactly how the lorry park on the M26 would work.
A spokesman for 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.’
Mr Grayling also yesterday gave MPs his ‘categorical assurance’ that planes will not be grounded post-Brexit. The vow came despite warnings from Whitehall two weeks ago that passengers could face flight disruption in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and similar warnings from both the National Audit Office and the Irish aviation chief.
Labour MP Lilian Greenwood, former shadow transport secretary, accused Mr Grayling of ‘mishandling’ the issue, since his first assurances in 2016 that planes would not be grounded. The MP for Nottingham South, who chairs the cross-party commons Transport committee said it is ‘clear from the Government’s own technical notices that this is a real possibility’.
But Mr Grayling said Ms Greenwood has ‘got this completely wrong’ and planes would still take off after Brexit. He said: ‘There is nothing the Government has said or done to imply that planes will be grounded or there will be no flights after we leave the EU.I give this House categorical assurance flights are going to continue.’
Technical notices published by the Department for Transport on September 24 warned that airlines will have to obtain individual permissions to operate between the UK and the EU in the event of no deal.
The document stated that ‘there could be some disruption to some flights’ if any EU country refused permission to fly there, although it stressed this would not be in their interests.
Labour MP Daniel Zeichner poured scorn on Mr Grayling’s assurance, arguing it ‘is not worth a jot.’