Tim Morris is the Chief Executive of the UK Major Ports Group.
Enjoying reading ConservativeHome? You wouldn’t be able to without major UK ports. Pretty much every screen you look at – phone, tablet monitor, television – has been handled by one of the UK’s largest ports on its way to your hand or home. And that’s just one example of the fundamental role that ports, and particularly major ports, have on our lives and the UK economy.
Ninety-five per cent of the UK’s physical trade with the world arrives or departs the nation by sea. Sevent-five per cent of this trade – worth £585 billion in 2017 – is handled by members of the organisation that I represent: the UK Major Ports Group. This includes the export of seven out of every ten cars made in the UK and the import of nearly half the UK’s food and feed requirements.
It is clear that UK’s major ports are already substantial and successful examples of Global Britain in action, today. They are Britain’s main gateways to the world, enabling trade and jobs. They have also been highly successful in attracting significant overseas capital – contributing to the more than half a billion pounds of investment that UK Major Ports Group members collectively make in the UK each year. This investment has helped create a major ports sector in the UK which is able to serve the world’s largest merchant vessels, providing British consumers and manufacturers with the most efficient access to global markets – fundamental in delivering a successful Brexit for the UK.
But there has been a lot of talk that Brexit will cripple our ports, clogging them up with paperwork and bureaucracy, with queues backing up on roads around them all over Britain’s coastlines. In fact, the opposite is true: Britain’s ports can thrive after we leave the European Union.
To understand why, you first need to understand that Britain’s ports are unique in Europe. The UK’s major ports are privately owned and operated, both as regular companies or as ‘trusts’, competing fiercely with each other. This is in contrast to their large port peers in Europe which are government owned, either at a national or regional level, and often based on a national monopoly with little competition.
Secondly, huge volumes of our trade is already non-EU. Yes, port traffic through Dover is 98 per cent with the EU. However, the large ports that handle container mega carriers – bringing products like the device you’re reading this article on – can in fact be as much as 95 per cent non-EU. UK ports already have the systems and processes in place to handle global trade highly efficiently and effectively. This shouldn’t sound complacent – particular types of port traffic have real challenges, and all ports need clarity on what is required from them and a pragmatic approach to implementation. But those challenges are concentrated. We need to see the bigger picture.
And part of that bigger picture is to recognise those opportunities from Brexit. It is vital that the UK captures these opportunities, as well as fixing the technical challenges. The UK can set regulation that is right for our competitive, private sector-led national context, rather than being lumbered with rules written for the statist monopolies elsewhere in Europe. The greater recognition of trade as an essential priority for the UK can only be positive, and a pro-trade approach must be hard-wired into policy making and regulation. Greater self-determination gives more freedom to adopt policies that boost UK growth.
A case in point is the wholly inappropriate EU-mandated Port Services Directive or ‘PSR’. The PSR is a ham-fisted attempt by Brussels bureaucrats to force competition onto a sector that is largely state run. But vigorous competition is already a hall mark of the UK major ports sector, producing benefits to consumers and exporters and delivering jobs and investment. So the PSR only succeeds in tying UK port operators in unnecessary red tape just as they should be – and the country needs them to be – redoubling their efforts to provide the best gateways possible for an independent trading Britain post Brexit. And, to add insult to injury, the PSR only comes into force in the UK on March 24th next year, a matter of days before Brexit happens.
So what’s the three-point plan from the UK’s major ports to make a success of Brexit for the long term?
- Hardwire ‘trade’ as a priority into Government and regulation – for example by establishing a Cabinet Committee and incorporating trade benefits more strongly into infrastructure assessments;
- Use the UK’s new flexibility to set a policy and regulatory landscape that’s appropriate for its unique major ports sector – for example by exploring the potential of ‘free ports’ to drive investment and jobs around our coast and by setting environmental standards which remain high but are streamlined and reflect the specific circumstances of the UK; and
- On a last in, first out principle, repeal the completely inappropriate EU-mandated Port Services Directive at the earliest possible opportunity.
Whilst there are some challenges from Brexit, there are also notable opportunities. Britain is at its best when it is an open, trading nation. Brexit can allow us to get rid of some of the unnecessary regulation and focus on hard-wiring a pro-trade approach into every aspect of policy-making.
Britain’s major ports have been foundations of the nation’s economic success and prosperity for hundreds of years. With the right, pragmatic approach to Brexit implementation, the courage to grasp the opportunities that Brexit offers and with an infrastructure-led approach to growth, major ports are confident that they will continue to play this foundation role for centuries to come.