Grabbing the Brexit opportunity

03 Apr 2017
Future plan: the UK Prime Minister has already pledged “frictionless trade” post-Brexit. Credit: Jay Allen/Crown Copyright.

Future plan: the UK Prime Minister has already pledged “frictionless trade” post-Brexit. Credit: Jay Allen/Crown Copyright.

The BPA’s Richard Ballantyne discusses potential opportunities for British ports to flourish post-Brexit

The phrase “we live in interesting times” is one we now regularly hear. The outcome of UK's European Union referendum last June has ensured that the next few years will be very “interesting” and UK ports will literally be at the frontier of a new relationship with our friends and neighbours across the Channel and Irish Sea. While UK ports have had to adapt to EU rules and regulations over the last 44 years, we now face a number of new opportunities as the Government prepares to start the process of withdrawing.

In terms of policy and legislation, Brexit has become the lens through which almost everything in the UK is now seen, and it is certainly no different for UK ports. The period since the Referendum has been one of speculation about the UK’s future trading relationships. But as the UK triggers Article 50, we expect and look forward to more clarity on what the post-Brexit landscape might look like.

The UK economy is the sixth largest in the world and following periods of economic and political adjustments is import driven. As an island our ports are vital and 95% of our imports and exports arrive through these gateways. The variety of UK ports will all be affected by Brexit in different ways and there are some challenges to overcome in the delivery of Brexit as well as some exciting opportunities for the sector.

The industry currently handles more than 500 million tonnes of freight each year, as well as over 60 million international and domestic passenger journeys. Clearly, there is a period of significant change ahead that carries risks, but the British Ports Association is ready to work with Government and our partners to ensure that the sector continues to play a productive and critical role in the UK’s economy.

Frictionless trade

The UK Prime Minister Theresa May has said that the UK will withdraw from the Single Market and Customs Union. Potentially any new requirements and checks at the border could be disruptive, and the re-introduction of frontier controls at our ro-ro ports could have an impact on these ports and the logistics sector.

At the moment, trade can pass freely throughout the EU without requirements for customs declarations and other interventions, but if the UK Government decides to make customs requirements a condition of entry into the UK from the EU it could lead to problems at ports. As an island, our ferry/ro-ro services link us to our biggest trading partners in the EU, and the UK Government now has it in its power to design a trade strategy which will not impose new border controls and avoid delays.

The Prime Minister has already pledged “frictionless trade”, which we hope in the case of ro-ro ports would mean any new customs and trade arrangements do not interrupt flows.

The BPA and its members have a good working relationship with Government and we have and will continue to work very closely on the details of new arrangements on a whole range of issues – from fishing to customs – as and when they are negotiated.

Opportunities to flourish

We understand that following Brexit negotiations, EU rules and regulations will all be transposed in their entirety, without change, into UK law in a so-called ‘Great Repeal Bill’. Once that has happened, the Government will be able to explore possible options to expedite planning decisions, to review the implementation of the recent Port Services Regulation, which was opposed by the UK ports industry and resisted by the UK Government.

We have also seen that the Government is keen to invest in parts of the UK that may have been left behind to ensure that any negative economic impacts of Brexit are limited. This is good news for ports which provide hubs of economic activity and employment and would benefit from investment in infrastructure, both on a connectivity level and from the increases in the importation of construction materials needed for such projects.

The BPA has also been responding to the Government with ideas for how British industry can thrive post-Brexit, putting forward a ‘Port Zones’ proposal in which we suggest designation areas around ports to recognise ports as economic hubs. This could enable planning consents to be fast-tracked and help to minimise the impacts of environmental designations, many of which stem from EU rules. This would not cost huge sums and (with political will) could help to stimulate growth and development.

Away from the Brexit negotiating table, UK ports policy is currently in the process of being devolved from Westminster to Wales - meaning we are faced with ports administrations in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which helps increase opportunities for government/industry dialogue and makes our job at the BPA even more interesting.

In summary, British ports are and have always been the UK’s main gateway to trade, and with the number of current and future opportunities available it looks likely that this will continue and flourish further.

Richard Ballantyne is chief executive of the British Ports Association.