Anyone following the news in the UK over the past few months could be forgiven for presuming Brexit was the only thing happening in the entire country.
In some respects, they might almost be right. For ports, there has been the well-documented struggle to prepare for the unknown. In January, a survey by Odgers Berndtson found that only 16% of about 100 UK ports and harbour authorities had made any ‘significant or practical’ plans for Brexit, but 59% were expecting a negative or strongly negative impact. Making those plans has been precisely the issue – in ‘normal times’, who would commit to substantial investments based on such shifting sands?
In early April it emerged that the government had only provided 10% of the money needed for ‘no deal’ Brexit preparations at Portsmouth, saying that the estimated risk of disruption did not warrant extra funding; this was despite warnings from port director Mike Sellers that, with only 13 lorry lengths between the port and the motorway, delays caused by post-Brexit customs checks could cause congestion across the city, as well as severely hampering supplies to the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands.
In fact, the political deadlock over the UK’s future relationship with the European Union has had more than the obvious direct consequences.
“There is obviously a lot of discussion around the detail of short-term arrangements, Customs, and so on,” says Tim Morris, chief executive of the UK Major Ports Group. “But for the large majority of ports, there is a sense of looking beyond the noise of Brexit and holding on to the real fundamentals of geography and the importance of maritime trade to the UK and keeping that backed up by a continuing strong record of investment.
“Within that, there is a lot of work going on for everyone, not just those handling accompanied ro-ro, in terms of preparation for Brexit. That is not only dealing with government but also working with customers to inform them of the different systems and work through different situations – for example, storage short and long-term, and reconfiguring processes.”
However, while that is going on, there is a deep sense of frustration among ports for two reasons, says Mr Morris.
“First, the normal business of regulation and policymaking has essentially ground to a halt – meaning that day-to-day things like dredging disposal licences and engagement with the MMO and people in Defra are at a standstill while everyone prepares [for Brexit] within their own organisation or has been seconded to other organisations.
“The other bit that has ground to a halt is some of the policy management work that has, or should, come out of the Maritime 2050 vision. This had some really useful, important and ambitious things in it around infrastructure developments and the use of land around ports, which are obviously very important for my members; these have simply been parked while the whole of the Department for Transport essentially focuses on Brexit preparations. It is deeply frustrating for all ports.”
A large subset of ports has a second frustration, says Mr Morris: . . . . . .
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