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Interview: Brexit and the £8bn UK ports industry

John Mulgrew speaks to Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association about working with 350 ports and harbours across the UK, what a ‘no deal’ Brexit could mean for Northern Ireland and the wider sector


Belfast Harbour

Belfast Harbour

Belfast Harbour

If you’re eating it, sitting on it or typing up a magazine interview on it, on this occasion, then there’s every likelihood it’s come through one of the UK’s hundreds of ports and harbours.

It’s responsible for handling 500 million tonnes across the UK as a whole, employing 115,000 people, and adding around £7.9bn to the economy in GVA each year – the second largest port industry in Europe.

Richard Ballantyne is the man heading up the British Ports Association, which acts for all types and sizes of ports throughout Northern Ireland and the UK.

“We are the traditional trade association for harbours and ports – we cover about 350 ports and harbours across the UK, from the large to the small,” he told Ulster Business.

In Northern Ireland it represents all ports – including Larne, Foyle, Warrenpoint and Belfast along with three fisheries harbours. “Within us we have Northern Ireland committee which has representatives of those ports on it,” he says.

We’ll start with Brexit as one of the concerns facing the sector. “In relation to Brexit, and the deal, there are two significant things for Northern Ireland ports.

“As with a lot of NI ports, there’s a lot of trade with Europe and any freight between two members states – no routine customs controls or product standard checks.

“The new plan indicates there will be a substantial divergence from this (unlike the previous agreement). Diverging substantially (from the current situation) will bring in the requirement for inspections at the border for customs.

“That hasn’t been agreed formally. That is quite a lot for UK and NI operators to deal with – haulage and freight movers, to get to grips with that. There are major operational challenges.

“Northern Ireland also leave the customs union with GB, but there will be a customs border will between GB and NI to continue to essentially allow freight and good to travel.”

Since Boris Johnson’s deal was floated, it’s understood the shipping industry is now drawing up plans for EU border checks in Britain for trade bound for Northern Ireland.

According to the BBC, freight could be diverted through ports with space for inspections at areas such as Liverpool and Stranraer.

Richard says checks are likely to be carried out at the ports. The issue? He says backlogs, queues and congestion.

“(It could lead) to queueing back on to ferries and ships, which may miss or mess up timetables,” he says.

He says while “many wouldn’t welcome new formalities”, a lot of cargo – such as dry bulk, fuel, aggregates and containerised products –  will find it reasonably easy to deal with. The main concern is around ‘roll on, roll off’, where the containers or lorries are driven on board a ship.

“Those modes are where it could be the most problematic, as it’s based on a fluid process,” he says.

“I think there is a definite concern from ports and shipping industries that businesses may be impacted negatively, and may reassess business operations.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a doomsday scenario but it’s a real challenge for the sector to overcome. Politicians will have to make sure that with any kind of arrangements, there will be a good solution. This is a new proposal, so we are unsure what the details will be.”

Brexit aside, Richard says the industry as a whole is that while the largely commercial and independent ports aren’t in need of ‘hand outs’ from the public sector, areas such as connectivity, roads and planning are key to their success.

“It’s about making sure the planning system works, and is swift, and responsive,” he said. “They can be agile, for example, building a new shed, terminal or quay, or new developments in the water.

“Where there are environmental sensitivities it can sometimes slow down the planning regimes so we are keen to see them not slow down. We welcome environmental policies but we want a scheme that will work and doesn’t have unintended consequences.

“Shipping, although not perfect, is one of the most clean and efficient methods of transport. It’s a balance between environmental protection, but enabling ports and regions to grow.

“If there are schemes, ports can find there are investors willing to come in, but they do rely on government – local or national – to finance road and rail connectivity.”

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