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Major UK ports group welcomes upbeat Brexit message

Tim Morris, CEO of the UK Major Ports Group, said: “We welcome the Prime Minister Theresa May’s remarks on grasping the benefits of Brexit"

 

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"There are real opportunities such as attracting more jobs and investment to coastal areas and setting the right regulations for the UK’s unique major ports sector," said Mr Morris. "There are of course challenges from Brexit but the UK can’t lose sight of the opportunities.”

During a whistle-stop round of meetings in the four countries of the UK, Mrs May said she believes "there are real opportunities for the United Kingdom. I think it’s a bright future out there. I think Brexit is going to deliver a country that is different, but there are real opportunities for us as an independent nation for the future."

Tim Morris’s intervention is highly significant, as it indicates that the body representing ports that together account for 75% of the US’s global trade, supports the Prime Minister’s policy line on Brexit, which includes leaving the customs union. UKMPG’s members are listed as ABP (some of whose smaller ports are also members of the BPA), Belfast Harbour Commissioners, Bristol Port Company, Forth Ports, Hutchison Ports UK, PD Ports, Peel Ports and the PLA.

One of UKMPG’s members, APB Southampton, has just hosted a visit from Suella Fernandes, MP, a Minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union. Southampton is the UK’s number one export port, handling £40B of exports every year, including 90% destined for countries outside the EU. The total trade handled by the port is worth some £75 billion.

“I was delighted to visit the Port of Southampton today - one of Britain’s greatest ports - to hear what people here think of the opportunities and challenges Brexit will bring," said the Minister. "Leaving the EU gives Britain the chance to agree ambitious new trade deals with other countries around the world, and ports like Southampton will play a key role in securing the future prosperity of our country."

Also last week, UK Transport Secretary Chris Grayling today announced the appointment of the team and its remit to spearhead the government’s Maritime 2050 programme, which he first announced in February. The team will be led by Hugh McNeal, CEO of RenewableUK. It will include academic and industry leaders, among them Lucy Armstrong, Chairman of the Port of Tyne, and Sarah Kenny, CEO of the BMT Group.

The team will work closely with shipping and ports industry contacts to help make sure the UK stays at the forefront of global shipping over the coming decades. The Call for Evidence, which closes on 16th May, highlights a number of themes fundamental to the growth of UK maritime - technology, trade, infrastructure, environment, people, security and resilience. As part of the strategy, a series of objectives will be set so that progress against each of these themes can be scrutinised.

Alongside the views of the expert panel, the Department for Transport (DfT) is also encouraging partners across the UK maritime sector to come forward with innovative and ambitious ideas to secure our maritime future.

The minister made his announcement on 27th March, the same day as a conference in London organised by Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum (WEETF) on The Future of UK posts post-Brexit – infrastructure, opportunities and policy.

Speaking at the conference, Roger Hargreaves, Director of Maritime at the DfT, said that Maritime 2050 is the most focused official look at the future of ports and shipping for many years. "We will soon release a port connectivity study. This will be the first time that government has officially recognised the real significance of ports in a generation."

However, a number of attendees made the point that there have been port connectivity studies before and nothing has come of them. "How long will it take before we can get Network Rail to commit to raising the height of 35 bridges on the line between Felixstowe and Coventry so we can take container trucks off the A14?" asked a bid manager from civil engineers Weir Group.

Port connectivity is a key part of the remit of the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). Its Freight Study, announced in last year’s autumn budget statement, is due to be published this autumn (interim) and in spring 2019 (final). Sasha Luhar, NIC’s Director, Freight said that NIC must provide recommendations to government on how to deliver a low carbon, resilient freight network, and they will be evidence-based. The government’s goal is to reduce transport emissions by 80% by 2050.

Although technically an agency of the Treasury, NIC’s charter requires it to operate independently and government is duty-bound to publish its recommendations. It cannot "bury" NIC’s reports.

The main Brexit issue for the ports is customs, veterinary and phytosanitary controls and potential delays impacting accompanied truck ferry ports such as Dover and the Getlink freight shuttles. However, it has always been the case that the deep sea ports see at least as many, if not more, opportunities than threats from Brexit.

Another speaker at the WEETF forum was Roger Hargreaves, Director of Maritime at the DfT. He said that Maritime 2050 is the most focused official look at the future of ports and shipping for many years. "We will soon release a port connectivity study. This will be the first time that government has officially recognised the real significance of ports in a generation."

 

However, a number of attendees made the point that there have been port connectivity studies before and nothing has come of them. "How long will it take before we can get Network Rail to commit to raising the height of 35 bridges on the line between Felixstowe and Coventry so we can take container trucks off the A14?" asked a bid manager from civil engineers Weir Group.

Port connectivity is a key part of the remit of the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). Its Freight Study, announced in last year’s autumn budget statement, is due to be published this autumn (interim) and in spring 2019 (final). Sasha Luhar, NIC’s Director, Freight said that NIC must provide recommendations to government on how to deliver a low carbon, resilient freight network, and they will be evidence-based. The government’s goal is to reduce transport emissions by 80% by 2050.

Although technically an agency of the Treasury, NIC’s charter requires it to operate independently and government is duty-bound to publish its recommendations. It cannot "bury" NIC’s reports.

The big problem for all UK ports is the EU Port Services Regulation (PSR), which must be enacted into national law by 24th March 2019 – five days before Brexit. If that were the actual leaving date it could probably be ignored, but the transition period is 31st December 2020, so there is a clear difficulty here.

The PSR, which seeks to introduce transparency and improve market access to port services is deeply unpopular in the UK and with private port operators in the rest of the EU. UKMPG and the British Ports Association (representing mostly smaller ports) are lobbying for an exemption, on the ground that most UK ports are privately-owned and self-funding. The situation is thus different to that in EU27, where 80% of port activity, including bunkering, towage, pilots, etc, is controlled by the state or state agencies.

However, trying to avoid PSR during the transition period before ditching it completely is what people in Brussels call "cakeism" - the British want their cake and they want to eat it.

On a positive note for ports, the Leader of Suffolk County Council, Colin Noble, told the WEETF that changes in grant regime for local authorities would force them to become more business-friendly and business-focused. The government is aimed to phase out the central grant and instead councils will be allowed to retain 100% of the business rates. Currently Suffolk gets 50% of its funds from the grants.

Suffolk may be a sparsely-populated county, said Cllr Noble, but it is home to three strategic ports – Lowestoft for offshore wind farms; Felixstowe, which accounts for 40% of UK container trade; and Ipswich, the port for 40% of the UK’s grain exports.

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