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On free chocolate, ports and an EU recipe for red tape

On free chocolate, ports and an EU recipe for red tape
In the UK’s pre-election frenzy, every day brings new promises from the politicians. Personally, as it seems almost at the point of handling out sweeties to children, I am waiting for the promise of free chocolate for all – but in the meantime, the ports industry has drawn up its own “wish list”, publishing a joint manifesto entitled "Delivering Value, A blueprint for ports policy".

This document outlines what the industry wants from the new government after May 7, British Ports Association (BPA) chairman Andrew Moffat told guests at the BPA’s annual lunch.

There are six priorities – and, dear readers, there are no prizes for guessing what is at the top of the list. Yes, it is that ongoing battle against the EU’s proposed Port Services Regulation.

The document, produced jointly by the BPA and the UK Major Ports Group (UKMPG), says the new government must work with the industry to ensure that ‘the EU works for ports and not against them’.

Moffat said: “We are currently negotiating on the Port Services Regulation; some of the principles are fine, but some of the proposals are based on a very different business model to that in the UK.”

The point, says the document, is that unlike many other member states in the EU, the UK’s ports operate on a commercial basis and largely without subsidy. “The EU needs to do more to promote fair and unsubsidised competition between major international ports, not least by enforcing Maritime State Aid rules consistently and fairly. EU measures such as the proposed EU Port Services Regulation would impose red tape, cause uncertainty and put investment and jobs at risk. These must be fought off.”

David Leighton, Associated British Ports’ head of public affairs and corporate communications, has been fighting ABP’s and the wider ports sector’s corner with some passion on this particular issue. And at a recent media gathering, he left journalists in no doubt over his preparedness and appetite for the continued battle.

The EU proposals would threaten the efficiency of a market which can already demonstrate that it is very competitive, Leighton said. “Although the UK government has been working to secure an exemption to some parts of the regulation, this is just not enough.

“We’re really facing a serious challenge here. An exemption is only a partial solution. My personal view is that the only way to protect the national interest is to get this regulation stopped.”

So, back to the BPA/UKMPG manifesto … the other five priorities are: make better port road and rail links a priority; foster a single strategy for ports; create a planning system that backs investment; invest in people and enhance safety; and create a well protected border which does not impede travel and trade.

“What happens to ports, whether that is nationally or internationally, in politics or through acts of God, will ultimately have an impact on the economy of a country that relies on sea trade for 95% of its exported and imported goods,” said Moffat. “The ports industry plays a fundamental role in the country’s economy and ports are also investing huge sums – over £2bn in the last five years, and at no cost to the taxpayer.”

In the General Election purdah, the BPA lunch was missing a Shipping Minister – instead, the guest speaker was John Cridland, director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

On his wish list when it comes to the new government? A recommitment to a national ports strategy, commitment to an export strategy with ambitious targets – and further investment in transport infrastructure.

“Fair and free competition across Europe must be underpinned in your market, as in all the markets I speak for, by a level playing field,” he told BPA members. “It isn’t just ports that benefit from better road and rail links.”

Calling for an integrated transport policy, he said: “We are very keen to see an independent transport commission, at arm’s length from ministers. We are asking for joined-up thinking. There is so much infrastructure that we need to put right. We need to champion this idea – it will benefit ports, increase growth and generate jobs.”