UK container port (Southampton)

+ Co-ordinated collaboration would allow UK ports to play their part in efforts for an integrated national transport strategy. © Wikipedia Commons. Photo by geni.

Over 80% of the world’s products and services are transported via sea and depend on port infrastructure to transport products and commodities to and from their final destinations. But for an island nation like the UK, with over 500m tonnes of goods, food, materials, fuel and cargo delivered by sea every year, it might come as a surprise to learn that there’s no single institution championing the strategic interests of UK ports. I believe they need advocacy in order to adapt and prosper.  

Although shipping companies have relatively high profiles, the public remains largely unaware of ports themselves. In the UK, 80% of imports and exports are transported through the country’s top 15 ports. But organisationally the UK port industry is a patchwork of bodies and interests, a mixture of privately run enterprises or locally-held trusts. Ports also compete among themselves for business so have traditionally failed to speak with one voice.

Other countries demonstrate what’s possible. Denmark now hosts an annual global maritime forum that brings together the biggest names in ports and shipping, relevant policy makers and other influencers to debate the future of this vital aspect of the world economy. The UK should be taking a similar lead. 

Changing cargo

Ports’ traditional role as the point of entry and departure for heavy industries like steel and coal is under threat from an uncertain energy policy and climate change. It’s a twin threat: as the economy tries to move away from the production and transport of fossil fuels like coal and gas there will be a loss of income for ports. At the same time, rising sea levels predicted by current climate change models also present dangers to many ports. A coordinated approach will be needed to deal with such long-term structural threats.

Climate change

Climate change transitions also present commercial possibilities for renewal. Consider for a moment that there are over 400 oil platforms in the North Sea, all of which will need to be decommissioned in the next 30 years as part of our transition to a low-carbon economy. Northern ports are well-placed to play a role here, providing transit, technology and skills for the removal of this legacy energy infrastructure, an emerging industry reckoned to be worth £46bn.

In the other component of the shift to renewables, ports are also perfectly poised to become the key construction location and service station for off-shore wind turbines. 

Speaking with a single voice

Taking advantage of these opportunities requires a body that can articulate and chart that future. Ports require a representative that would promote the interests of the maritime industry, work with government to develop future strategy and foster greater collaboration within the industry and with external partners. 

This co-ordinated collaboration would allow UK ports to play their part in efforts for an integrated national transport strategy, to lobby for better hinterland connectivity links and ultimately to contribute to the development of a resilient and competitive UK maritime industry.