Renewed push for ports to be recognised for role they could play in post Brexit economy

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 3 May 2018

The idea of setting up free ports to avoid Brexit taxes put Grimsby in the national spotlight last year – and now its backers want to take the concept even further, reports Parliamentary Correspondent Patrick Daly

LET’S face it – ports and haulage is not a sexy topic. But as the country prepares for Brexit, there is a recognition that the Humber is one of the gateways to international trade.

In North Lincolnshire, it is an industry that is incredibly visible, with lorries a permanent feature on the region’s road as they deliver heavy cargo – ranging from coal to fresh fish – to and from Immingham and Grimsby Docks.

The Brexit vote has put the focus on ports – the entry point for 95 per cent of the goods we use in the UK – and there is a renewed push for ports to be recognised for the role they could play in growing the economy.

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The Department for Transport (DfT) last week published the self-commission report, ‘Transport infrastructure for our global future’, examining the connectivity of UK ports and what needs to be done to improve their road, rail and even waterway links.

Maritime Minister Nusrat Ghani MP said ports would be paramount to preparing the way for Britain to pursue its aim of becoming a global trading nation outside the European Union.

“Our ports are fundamental to our success as a trading nation, providing vital links for the best UK companies to global export markets,” said the junior minister.

“A renewed focus on trade, exports, productivity and competitiveness has never been more important to allow the UK to go from strength to strength as we plan for our exit from the European Union.”

Simon Bird, pictured, director of Associated British Port’s (ABP) operation in the Humber, said he was pleased to see the sector recognised.

“The study is very useful for the sector because it gives significant recognition to the role ports play in driving the economy,” said Mr Bird.

“The Humber ports are the biggest in the UK by tonnage. That access for big ships means we are taking in heavy loads. What comes through the Humber is of national importance.”

He wants to use the report to further explore the free port concept which hit headlines last year.

ABP supports the idea of setting up free ports in the Humber – a move which would remove import and export taxes on all goods that enter and leave the ports on the estuary. 

It is a concept that exists across the world already, with countries as diverse as China, USA, Ireland and Nigeria adopting free ports. Figures in Grimsby’s seafood industry see it as the solution to the threat of possible tariffs on its raw and processed produce after the UK exits the EU.

The Port of Immingham is the largest port by tonnage in the country and the fourth biggest in Europe, handling up to 55 million tonnes, including nearly 20 million tonnes of oil and 10 million tonnes of coal. Bosses are keen for the operation to continue to be competitive outside of the EU’s customs union and single market.

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And Mr Bird, who has worked in the port sector for more than 20 years, sees the DfT report as an ideal time to widen the free port talks out further.

He suggests there is no need to limit free ports to only the area around the port – it could extend to transport networks as well.

The DfT report emphasises the importance of the “connectivity corridors” between the ports – including the east to west route through the north, linking the Humber to Liverpool.

Mr Bird said one idea he wants to put before ministers is for the M62 motorway to be incorporated into any free port zone.

“You could extend the free port – you could have the M62 as a free port zone so that any cargo going through Liverpool could get to the Humber without coming through into UK jurisdiction,” said Mr Bird.

“It would need the technology to monitor it and a lot of detail would have to be worked out around that but, in terms of east to west connectivity, it would be hugely beneficial.

“You could throw your [free port] net right across the Pennines. When we are thinking about these things, why not think slightly outside the box?”

Teesside is seen as the leader in the race for a free port pilot, having launched out of the blocks early to work with Rishi Sunak, the Richmond (Yorkshire) MP – and now a minister – who brought the idea to prominence in the UK. 

But Mr Bird said the Humber would offer the Government the most thorough results if it was awarded the first pilot.

“We want them to look at the tonnage moving through the Humber,” said the former chief executive of the Bristol Port Company. 

“If you want to pilot something, I would suggest the Humber is the ideal place to do it, given our diversity of goods and the amount of tonnage.”

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The DfT report has put rail and road connections between the county’s ports back on the investment agenda. 

Marie-Claude Hemming, director of external affairs for the Civil Engineering Contractors Association, said the Government should use this opportunity to invest in Humber ports – especially with the renewables revolution currently taking place on both sides of the tidal estuary.

She said improved road and rail links to the east coast ports of Hull, Immingham and Grimsby would “support freight growth and support offshore wind generation”.

Grimsby MP Melanie Onn, pictured right, was another who was quick, in the wake of the report, to call on the Government to build better rail links for the haulage sector to utilise.

“In order to move additional goods around the country there would need to be significant investment in the freight rail sector, which could also bring positive outcomes for the passenger side too,” said the Labour front bench politician.

Immingham, especially, already contains a vast network of transport provisions, including 22 miles of road within its confines and rail sidings where containers of coal, steel and wood pellets (used at Drax’s biomass plant in Selby) from the ships are loaded onto waiting freight trains.

ABP’s Mr Bird praised the recent improvements made to local connections, including the dualling of the A160 and the A180 connection to the motorway network.

Network Rail has also upgraded much of its mainline route to be able to carry “high cube” containers, allowing large cargo to travel safely by rail.

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It is a method of travel that Mr Bird is keen to see more investment in, especially on the route across the Pennines in order to create a “land bridge” between two of the major UK ports.

“The next big step is that east to west connection,” said the Humber director.

“Peel Ports in Liverpool would say exactly the same thing. They want to see that rail link so cargo in the Humber can move very rapidly and move through from Ireland. There are also US links to consider, as well as distribution for UK manufacturing or production.

“It is a very effective land bridge across the UK. Ireland is looking for fast movement of cargo, so let’s make that as easy as possible.”

At the moment, freight travels mainly by road to Liverpool because of the poor rail provision, making it liable to traffic delays on the M62.

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Mr Bird said he has spoken and met with chiefs at Transport for the North (TfN), the body responsible for strategic improvements in the region, about the need for rail upgrades. 

“They recognise the importance in terms of what the Humber does,” said Mr Bird. “We are certainly getting a hearing from TfN."

Immingham is in MP Martin Vickers’s Cleethorpes constituency and the Conservative politician has vowed to use the report and ABP’s stance on it to lobby ministers for action.

“It is extremely helpful that DfT has published this detailed report – world trade is going to be crucial post-Brexit,” said the backbench MP.

“Ports such as Immingham are set to gain from any increase in trade and that is good for the local economy and good for jobs. This is a recognition that the major ports, such as Immingham, will play a big role in the immediate future.”

Ports are certainly set to play a major role in the country’s post-Brexit economy – and the DfT seems to have recognised that in commissioning its report.

But before the ports at Immingham and Grimsby can fulfil their economic potential, they will need the track and the tarmac in place so they can make good on the promise of swift delivery to the UK’s new international trading partners.

The Department for Transport (DfT) last week published the self-commission report, ‘Transport infrastructure for our global future’, examining the connectivity of UK ports and what needs to be done to improve their road, rail and even waterway links.



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