Prioritising ports – an agenda for 2020. By Tim Morris

As the astute readers of Land, Sea & Air will know there are two types of forecast – the wrong and the lucky. Therefore, as I write this whilst the smoke of the December election is still clearing and celebration and recrimination echo around the media, it seems particularly perilous to make predictions about 2020. But there are a couple of key themes where port and emerging political priorities come together. These – Brexit, infrastructure and sustainability – feel like key strategic pillars, not just for 2020 but for the long term as well.

With 95 per cent of the UK’s physical imports and exports arriving or departing by sea the UK’s ports are our predominant gateways with the world for trade. Brexit and its impact on borders has been and is a key issue for ports – in a highly practical sense, regardless of the politics. Ports have been working incredibly hard to prepare for change and to cope with any disruption. Whilst the challenges are obvious, Brexit also brings opportunities for many ports. Brexit has prompted cargo owners and logistics players to really think hard about their supply chain routing. And the answers have frequently been to explore new options – new routes, new cargo modes, new ways of working – which provide economic and environmental efficiency gains.

2020 is likely to pose new Brexit related questions to ports. How we operationalise a ‘one region two systems’ borders regime for Northern Ireland, with its implications for new processes and potentially infrastructure in Great Britain. How, working in close collaboration with partners in both industry and Government, we collectively work out the practical details of the lofty aspirations of the future relationship with the EU. We’re ready to roll up our sleeves even further!

The longer term, strategic opportunity is to take the current (welcome) raised awareness of the importance of trade and embed this structurally into policy making and regulation across Whitehall. We want to see a ‘Trade First’ review of the rule book to ensure the UK is in the best shape it can be as a newly independent player on the world trade stage.

It was encouraging to see a consensus across party election manifestos on increasing spending on infrastructure. Ports look forward to the Government delivering on these commitments and will play our part in making it happen. If you’re reading Land, Sea & Air you’ll know how vital connectivity – road, rail and water – is to the UK economy. That’s absolutely the case for ports. For the UK to maximise the value it gets out of its water-side global gates and boost still further the £9.7bn of Gross Value Added ports already contribute to the UK economy the solution is simple – improve the infrastructure that connects them with the main centres of business and population.

The good news for the bean counting wizards at the Treasury is that some of the really important changes that ports want to see from Government cost nothing. Zilch. In fact, it’s better than that – they are changes that boost private sector investment in infrastructure, such as the £600 million that the UK’s major port operators invest each year. What’s the key to unlocking more investment? Improving the planning system in and around ports. Making these rules more welcoming to investment could deliver more jobs and prosperity to coastal communities all around the UK. These are communities who too often experience challenging socio-economic conditions. But as a sector deeply embedded in these communities we see the latent capability that’s there. Better planning rules offer a real opportunity to unleash the potential of the UK’s Coastal Powerhouse.

2019 saw a paradigm shift in sustainability awareness and focus. 2020 will see this continue. The next international ‘COP’ climate change conference taking place in Glasgow will no doubt increase the drive for change in the UK. In the maritime sector, we’ll see how the first year of the new international regulations on sulphur limits in ship fuel plays out. And for ports in the UK we’ll be hoping to work closely with the Government as the concept of some trailblazing low emissions ‘Clusters’ is further developed.

Ports are committed to playing their part in a transition to a zero emissions UK and maritime sector. But we can’t play our full part in the transition alone. The choices for the future zero emissions energy sources for the maritime sector need more research and take-up by shipping companies. On the landside ports, like many other logistics sectors, are reliant on new networks and infrastructure to deliver the new energy sources in sufficient volume. The economy-wide challenge is enormous but so is the imperative for change.

All of this – Brexit and trade, infrastructure and the Coastal Powerhouse, sustainability and zero emissions maritime – is underpinned by what won’t change. The UK, as an island nation, will still be hugely reliant on maritime-borne supply chains and the UK’s major ports who handle so much of what we all take for granted. And providing the services that our customers demand will remain at the heart of what ports do.

The UK’s ports make a huge contribution today. They are ambitious to grow this contribution further through 2020 – providing global gateways for trade, jobs and prosperity for coastal communities and enabling a more sustainable future.

Tim Morris is Chief Executive at The UK Major Ports Group (UKMPG) the trade association representing most of the large commercial ports in the United Kingdom. It has nine members who, between them, own and operate over 40 ports, accounting for 75 per cemt of the
UK’s seaborne trade. UKMPG members annually invest more than
£500 million in the UK.