When shipping stalls, Dover grinds to a halt. I mean this in terms of road infrastructure of course, but I also mean it economically and socially: shipping is the town’s soul and for centuries, in fact for Millenia, the industry around the boats has put bread on the tables of local families. People in Dover are proud of their maritime and shipping heritage but government policy is allowing a race-to-the-bottom when it comes to the employment legislation, protections and standards needed to protect our seafarers and our the communities around the British coastline that depend on that sector.

The recent P&O scandal is a case in point; earlier this spring when hundreds of workers were sacked to be replaced by cheaper agency staff, the government found that current legislation wasn’t fit for purpose. The current government framework does little to stop exploitative models such as the one P&O’s Dubai-based owners are pursuing. Some of P&O’s ferries are registered in Cyprus; this means they do not have to pay the minimum wage required by UK law. If they don’t have to pay minimum wages, exploitative companies won’t; it is that simple. Many local people and local unions have been warning for years that the ‘flagging out’ of UK fleets to tax haven and legislation/wage-avoiding registers and dominions is all part of an agreed long-term strategy to drive down costs. Many people are vocal in their opinion that the current Conservative government has been well-aware of this wider strategy for a long, long time: after all – they awarded the London Gateway (part of the Thames Freeport) contract to DP World, the same Dubai-based company that have sliced the standards at P&O. The hand-wringing and claims of shock and outrage from local Conservative leaders about what happened in Dover is disingenuous and was poorly received by local people: they have had years to change the law around fleet flagging and despite local unions sounding warnings for years, nothing was done.

Charlotte with Cllr Charlie Zosseder outside the RMT offices protesting the P&O sackings
Charlotte with Cllr Charlie Zosseder outside the RMT offices protesting the P&O sackings

With workers in Dover now being hired (in some cases) on lower agency rates, wages in the town are driven down. Many ratings (seafarers) are now looking for new opportunities in other sectors, but East Kent has a higher-than-UK-average unemployment rate, so some people who previously worked on the boats have already moved their families to other parts of the UK. As wages are driven down, the local high street suffers. Despite regeneration monies as part of the Future High Streets Fund and the Coastal Communities Fund, the impact of some exciting initiatives will be mitigated because the pounds are not being put in the pockets of local people to enable them to spend. The recent P&O scandal coupled with the Cost-of-Living Crisis is turning into a toxic economic mix for the town. Furthermore, Dover High Street has been suffering for years as many people shop out-of-town in Folkestone or Canterbury. With recent headlines, even if people were attracted to come to Dover with a rejuvenated town centre layout, the fear of getting caught in traffic queues is enough to put even the foolhardiest off.

A bold traffic management strategy is needed to relieve the pressure on Dover’s town centre and the communities that surround the town. Brexit has certainly made processing slower at the Port and the air quality in Aycliffe and Whitfield plummets when traffic stacks up. Plans for a Lorry Park at Whitfield might relieve pressure at the Port, but it just pushes trouble back down the A2 to an area where housing development is ongoing and the size of the resident community is considerable: people there with existing health issues and children – with less developed lungs – are especially vulnerable to increase particulate pollution. The whole area of East Kent, but particularly the Dover area, needs much tighter air pollution targets around which a traffic management policy can be based. Doing it this way allows for a conviction-led, policy-based, long-term strategy, rather than the knee-jerk panic response that Operation Brock has offered in recent years.

Dover deserves to be a much-better-loved UK town. It would be nice for the town to be considered a national treasure: white cliffs, Operation Fortitude, Roman landings, the main UK Port for thousands of years. It is the point from which – at some point – all of our ancestors landed. To get to the status of National Treasure Town (an award I’ve invented but am actually serious about) Dover needs a lot more love and attention. It needs companies investing in the area that value their workers; it needs government policy to protect labour standards; it needs massive infrastructure investment (maybe even tolled parts of the A2 for export traffic) to allow freight to move without blocking local, visitor and tourist traffic; the A2 needs to be duelled; Dover needs even more fast trains to London with an affordable – preferably nationalised provider –  and a special coastal community help-to-buy scheme to assist local and key workers to get on the housing ladder (such a coastal help-to-buy could also help solve some of the second-housing pressures afflicting other coastal communities up and down the UK). In short, Dover needs so much more than it has had from the Conservative-led government of the last twelve years: things really need to change here.

Comments and questions welcome to charlotte@charlottecornell.org

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