Speaking up for the UK ports industry

UK Shipping Minister John Hayes vowed to be a ‘resolute, committed and determined champion’ of the UK ports sector when he spoke at the UK Major Ports Group annual reception on 27 November.

His words were enthusiastically applauded by UKMPG members gathered at the House of Commons – particularly when he promised that the European Union’s Ports Services Regulation, heavily resisted by the UK, would be ‘consigned to the dustbin’ in the UK due to Brexit.

While it’s great to know that Hayes, serving as shipping minister for a third time, is so strongly supportive of the industry, it’s also true that UK ports sector has increasingly found its voice in recent years.

This week, the government published its Industrial Strategy white paper, and British Ports Association chief executive Richard Ballantyne was quick to respond, calling for a ‘long overdue freight strategy to aid industrial growth’. Ports should be prioritised in the white paper, with greater focus on transport connectivity and planning to stimulate national and regional development, he said.

The Industrial Strategy is a major and long-term government exercise, but the focus is very much towards emerging technologies, said Ballantyne. “It is vital that ports and freight are recognised as being essential to national and regional growth and increased international trade. Ports are not only international gateways, they also provide hubs for industry and employment, which the white paper acknowledges. However, it remains vital that the UK’s national transport system and in particular the road network has sufficient capacity the facilitate trade to and from our ports.”

The BPA wants to see a new freight strategy, alongside the white paper, that recognises ports as being vital components of the logistics chain, he said. “In recent years the ports sector has seen an unprecedented increase in the level of restrictive planning conditions and environmental designations, which have regularly interfered with port activity and development. This must be addressed.”  

Speaking at the House of Commons, James Cooper, chairman of UKMPG and chief executive of Associated British Ports, also had an agenda for the government, with the emphasis on post-Brexit.

The UK’s ports have the potential to play a unique and important role in addressing three great imbalances affecting the UK – trade, economic and regional, he said.
“While the UK trades about 56% of its GDP, the rest of the EU trades over 80% of its.  We simply aren’t the trading nation we kid ourselves we are. And many of our ports are in areas of often significant deprivation, left behind by globalisation that has filleted jobs, not just from the ports industry but from the value-added industries that used the thrive alongside us, such as steel manufacturing and shipbuilding.”

The importance of trade must be hardwired into the government’s policies and decision making, he said. “We want to work with government to develop a pro trade agenda.”
Cooper called for a ‘presumption of growth’ of the UK’s major trading gateways in the development consenting process, with the benefits of trade taken into account when considering infrastructure projects.  The use of large stocks of brownfield land on or next to major trading gateways needs to be stimulated, preferably for activities that can make use of the deep water that lies close by, he said. He also called for a regulatory environment ‘that promotes investment in port infrastructure rather than hinders it’.  

“We need to be at the leading edge of technological developments in autonomy, artificial intelligence and the digital, smart, green economy.  Ports will take their place as part of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ as surely as they done in previous major advances.”

And finally, he said: “We need good access to ports – road, rail and digitally – to enable our consumers and manufacturers to benefit fully from the investments being made inside the port gates.”

The Department for Transport’s Port Connectivity Study will be one part of addressing this last challenge, said Cooper, and he welcomed the commissioning of a National Infrastructure Commission to review the UK’s freight network.   

The future of the UK has many elements of uncertainty, he concluded. “The contribution of its major ports today and their willingness to develop and grow their contribution tomorrow is not one of them.”

Posted 01 December 2017

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Felicity Landon

Ports Correspondent, Seatrade Maritime