The UK’s planned departure from the Customs Union has created anxiety about the impact of additional customs checks at UK ports. A great deal of this anxiety has centred on the Port of Dover, which handles around 30% of the UK’s trade in goods with Europe. The Port has warned of severe delays if new customs clearance arrangements capable of facilitating ‘frictionless trade’ are not in place after the UK leaves the Customs Union.
The Port of Dover estimates that delays at the port can cost the UK economy up to £250 million per day. This emerged in 2015 while trade at the port was disrupted for over 30 days. That is why it is important to listen to Dover’s warnings as Brexit negotiations continue.
The Government has published its ambitions for making sure trade is as frictionless as possible after the UK leaves the Customs Union. Naturally there are hopes that the European Union will share these ambitions and reach an agreement where the risk of severe intermittent or ongoing delays at Dover is reduced. However, there is no guarantee.
Whilst the Government must work hard to make sure trade can flow as efficiently as possible through Dover, it is also important to make sure that businesses are ready to make greater use of alternative ports where possible.
And the uncertainty intensifies when recognising that a positive outcome depends not just on agreeing new customs arrangements in principle, but also effective implementation and continued political good will. Indeed, there is a risk that a deterioration in political good will between the UK and France during Brexit negotiations may in itself result in disruption at Dover. Again, no-one wants to see any of this turn into reality but it is a possibility that should be acknowledged, and the UK needs to be prepared for all scenarios.
One of the main reasons why Dover may become even more vulnerable to delays after leaving the Customs Union is if this leads to more vehicles being stopped at the port, or indeed in Calais, for inspection; the port simply does not have the space to accommodate these vehicles.
However, there are several other ports that do have space and which are capable of accommodating additional customs checks if introduced. Many of these ports are on the East Coast, including Tees, Hull and Immingham on the Humber and Tilbury on the Thames. The Humber is already an important gateway for trade with Europe, handling EU imports and exports worth around £67 billion every year.
New larger vessels are on order to serve a number of east coast ports and good road and rail connections mean that there is plenty of capacity available to handle extra trade with the EU if needed. Indeed, this year has seen the completion of a new £93 million scheme to improve road access to the Port of Immingham, with a further £15 million being invested to upgrade rail access. It is worth noting that the option to use rail, which is unavailable at Dover, can offer substantial environmental benefits by reducing the number of HGVs on the roads.
It is estimated that up to 200 million HGV kilometres per annum can be removed from the South East’s congested road network if the concentration of EU trade moving through Dover was reduced to 1993 levels.
Another benefit of ports on the East Coast is that they serve routes to mainland Europe which are arguably less vulnerable to avoidable disruption. The Flemish Transport Minister, Ben Weyts, has stated that ports in Flanders, such as Zeebrugge, Antwerp and Ghent, are ready to accommodate more trade between the UK and EU. ABP has so far engaged with seven major ports on mainland Europe which share our commitment to continue smooth and efficient trade between the UK and other EU countries.
So, let’s not panic; let’s plan.
It is important that port customers continue to decide their own preferred means and routes for trade with mainland Europe. And it is important to recognise that the route from Dover to Calais offers many businesses a quicker route to and from market. This can be important for customers which, for example, handle perishable products or components for manufacturing supply chains. (That said, certainty around time of arrival or departure can be equally important for efficient manufacturing processes).
But, regardless of its strengths, the Port of Dover is undeniably a point of strategic vulnerability for UK-EU trade. Whilst the Government must work hard to make sure trade can flow as efficiently as possible through Dover, it is also important to make sure that businesses are ready to make greater use of alternative ports where possible. The creation of a UK Ports and Logistics Brexit Task Force would be a useful first step.