The UK’s major ports: vital now, crucial to the future

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Tim Morris, Chief Executive of the UK Major Ports Group, discusses the economic significance of the UK ports sector, which ensures the continued prosperity of the UK as an island nation.

London International Shipping Week (9th-13th September) is a good opportunity for us all – including the media, policy makers and the public – to remember how dependent we are in the UK on the sea.

The very efficiency of the modern supply chains that so seamlessly deliver goods to the shelves of our shops and packages to our front doors, can all too easily make us ‘sea blind’ and therefore ‘port blind’ to all the hard work that got them there.

Whilst the facts are well known to those in the ports sector, they can’t be shouted too loudly. We are an island nation. 95% of the UK’s trade moves via its ports on the sea. This includes half the food and feed we need, 8 out of 10 cars we drive and virtually every screen we look at.

Many of the UK’s best manufacturing sectors simply couldn’t function without ports – £44 billion of exports from the UK automotive industry pass through our ports.

“95% of the UK’s trade moves via its ports on the sea. This includes half the food and feed we need, 8 out of 10 cars we drive and virtually every screen we look at.”

But to focus on trade only tells part of the story of the vital role that ports play for the UK and particularly for the economies and communities all around our coast. Experts have estimated that the ports sector itself generates more than £7 billion of value for the UK, directly employing around 100,000 people with 6 jobs in the wider supply chains dependent on each direct job.

Research has highlighted that a significant and worrying gap has opened between the social and economic prospects of communities around the UK coast and those in big city regions. The maritime sector, and ports in particular, have a crucial role to play alongside others working hard in these areas to realise the potential of our ‘Coastal Powerhouse’.

The UK’s major ports sector is also challenging the old view of their role in cross border flows as ‘just’ points of transit for goods and people. Port-centric models of logistics and manufacturing, such as ABP’s Green Port Hull, are allowing both ports and their customers to add value as well as handling volume. Crucial to this is the increasing role major ports are playing as gateways for data as well as goods.

These data flows, combined with port- centric models, drive greater transparency and efficiencies in supply chains – as well as adding greater potential to reduce emissions. This is the future of ports and supply chains. Port operators like ABP are making this a reality today.

The UK’s major ports are a largely unsung success story for another cross-border flow – that of funds for investment. The ports sector invests more than £600 million each year, almost entirely from private sector sources. The ability to invest so heavily depends on the efficiency of the ports to generate funds for their own development. But it also demonstrates the strength of the profile of ports to long-term investors like pension funds. In the UK, 6.2 million pension fund savers invest in our ports.

And the major ports sector has been highly successful in attracting long-term focused investment from funds across the world.

So the UK’s major port operators like ABP make a huge contribution today, both to the UK and its coastal communities, are redefining what the modern port can be and are investing hugely to make this happen.

But they are ambitious to do more – grow investment, grow the UK’s ability to trade with the world, grow jobs and prosperity in our coastal communities. To achieve this they need the Government to play its role in improving the supporting conditions for the success of ports.

What does this mean in practice? The UK Major Ports Group works with its members like ABP to promote a five-point agenda to boost further the success and value of the ports sector:

  1. Better connectivity. Better freight, data and energy connectivity are crucial to success.
  2. Better development rules. Planning regulations that better reflect the modern port would boost investment further.
  3. Better balance in environmental rules. Ports believe in high sustainability standards, but they need to be ones that work with, rather than against, responsible development.
  4. The right ‘knowledge infrastructure’. The Government’s skills frameworks and support of fundamental R&D need to be suitable for developing the port of tomorrow here in the UK.
  5. Adapting to a changing world. Ports need more pragmatic clarity about the UKs, relationship with Europe and ensuring the UK remains a good location for legitimate global investors.
“With the right partnership with Government our ports are confident in their ability to grow their crucial contribution long into the future.”

The UK’s ports are and have been, throughout history, vital to the success of our island nation. With the right partnership with Government they are confident in their ability to grow this crucial contribution long into the future.