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Towards a frictionless future

Freight Industry Times sat down with Richard Ballantyne, CEO of the British Ports Association, to understand how the ports sector is handling new border controls and preparing for future challenges.

The ports industry was approaching the final stages of preparation for the new border regime when FIT spoke to Ballantyne at the end of April.

“Hopefully, by the time this article is published, we will have crossed the last hurdle and reached the point where all the post-Brexit trading arrangements are in place.”

Many ports have had to build new border infrastructure specifically for this purpose while the ongoing costs are to be met by ports and paid for by charges on users.

Ballantyne says: “Ports have had to go a long way and invest in a lot of infrastructure to prepare for this. We're confident that the infrastructure will be ready, as are traders. It will be an extra cost for the industry to bear, but we think with all the planning and preparations in place, it should be relatively seamless.”

Beneath this preparedness lies the concern about the extra financial burden on smaller traders. Many logistics industry groups, including BPA, expressed their disappointment regarding the new charging structure for imported goods, raising concerns about the knock-on effects for smaller businesses.

“The cost is a big issue,” Ballantyne acknowledges. “Whichever way you look at it, there'll be an extra cost for importers, which I guess will be passed on to manufacturers and consumers. It’s something that we, as an industry, didn't lobby for originally. We lobbied for a trade deal with the EU that included reciprocal standards, but the government has decided on a different regime.”

In response to this, Ballantyne suggests that future governments may need to revisit current arrangements to explore closer cooperation with the EU: “I think there is a question mark over whether these controls will remain in place in the future. Any new government will be looking at the trade deal we have with the EU and deciding what's fit for purpose. This might be one of the areas where it explores closer cooperation with the EU, which I think a lot of the ports and port users would welcome.”

He adds: “Moving forward, it may be that a closer arrangement with the EU helps encourage more trade between the two blocs, which would be good for our ports system.”

And if the current border regime were to change again in the future? “Ports would probably take a pragmatic view,” says Ballantyne. “It would free up infrastructure and space at ports so they could use it for commercial purposes.

“We are very mindful of what future trading arrangements may look like, but we would definitely be asking for government support if these facilities are no longer required,” he adds.

Adopting a pragmatic approach underscores how market-led the ports sector is, says Ballantyne. “The competitive nature of the ports industry gives customers and shippers a lot of choice in the routes they take into the UK market.

“We're predominantly an import-driven country and a lot of those goods come from the EU. There is a lot of choice for shippers to go through different routes, and that competition is set to continue.”

And while the UK may have excellent port capacity and facilities, this is not always matched by its inland connections, both for road and rail. So what is BPA doing to improve port connectivity and promote modal shift?

BPA's focus is on policy and the legislative process, says Ballantyne. “We're pushing policymakers to consider how they promote and maximise the opportunity of modal shift from an environmental point of view. From a commercial point of view, road is king in the UK because of our geography. You're never that far away from a port – the maximum point in the UK is just two hours from the coast. We also have a lot of different types of ports, particularly in England and Wales, so that southern corridor can find choice. Ultimately, it's quite easy to put things on the back of a lorry and either drive them through a port or enter and leave a port with a lorry.”

“To try and highlight that rail is a viable alternative is something we're encouraging the government to look at, but not everywhere will be suitable for rail. The same goes for water freight. We do think there are real opportunities for water freight. We take opportunities to highlight this to ministers and others as often as possible because it can free up congestion on busy roads. It might be more suitable for less time-critical goods, like heavy goods, that you can supply north-south. I think that needs to be explored properly.”

He continues: “There is a natural suspicion or misunderstanding of water freight from the freight industry because they just want to get their stuff from A to B in a simple and straightforward way. Water freight appears to complicate things somewhat.

“But we do have a lot of ports and terminals that can facilitate lots of different types of coastal shipping, whether it's containerised, short sea operations, or barges carrying heavy cargos. But that’s still not recognised nationally as an option for both commercial operators and the government.”

This is something BPA is looking to change via the Freight Council, the cross-modal forum set up in 2021 to drive collaboration between government and the freight sector, but progress has been slow, admits Ballantyne.

“The Freight Council hasn't necessarily had the full desired benefits because we wanted to see more involvement from other government departments, like those responsible at the Treasury for financing transport and those responsible for planning policy at other government departments.

“We're keen that the momentum is not lost, but we are now working much closer with our industry partners. We've recently written to a number of politicians ahead of the election, highlighting the case for logistics and looking at the potential for better recognition across government, including having a dedicated logistics minister. This might help prioritise freight beyond just the Department of Transport.”

“There’s a lot to do and we realise we're competing with many other industries for government airtime. But getting together improves our visibility and helps our case if there's a bigger collective lobby for quicker decisions. Ultimately, we are a market-led sector, so the industry will take the lead.

“It's about making policymakers and the new government aware of what will help grow and attract investment, enabling ports and freight operators to invest locally, leading to job creation.”

Better planning rules, more support on the decarbonisation agenda, and recognition of the importance of ports are crucial, says Ballantyne. “Policymakers need to encourage and stimulate investment and growth without stifling it. The UK economy is very much import-driven, so we will continue to rely on our ports and freight hubs.

“But we want to do more than just rely," Ballantyne continues, “we want to encourage and attract growth and investment. There will also be a lot of activity away from freight logistics in ports, like energy supply and generation. The rollout of floating offshore wind in the North Sea and UK territorial waters will mean many ports will focus on the energy revolution. Fortunately, there are enough ports and coastline to avoid too much competition between different modes and commercial activities at ports.”

For Ballantyne and the BPA, it's about making sure that everybody understands and recognises the value of ports in the supply chain. “I think it's important to focus on ports as strategic entities. If you have a good, efficient port that can grow, develop and invest, the world is your oyster. Policymakers, traders, and importers need to recognise the strategic value of ports, not just see them as points on the map that you have to go through. We need to celebrate and appreciate the gateways we provide.”

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