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Mon, 3 August 2020

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Our ports must be well connected to the rest of the country if we want to see strong trade

Our ports must be well connected to the rest of the country if we want to see strong trade

The world’s largest container ship “HMM Algeciras” on its maiden voyage | PA Images

3 min read

Trade will be crucial to our Covid economic recovery – but we’ll need a strategic approach to regional connectivity and transport links for freight

So, as the country emerges from lockdown and approaches the end of the transition period to Brexit, it’s critical that the Government refocuses its energy on trade.

As bi-lateral negotiations progress with the EU, the USA, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, the domestic trading environment must not be neglected.   

We must adopt a new laser-like focus backed by accelerated, targeted and sustained investment in digital and public infrastructure to boost existing industrial clusters and strengthen coastal communities that have been economically left behind.

I’m proud to represent a thriving maritime business cluster, which is home to the newest container port at London Gateway and, in the neighbouring constituency, a brand new freight ferry terminal, Tilbury2.

These two logistics complexes are at the heart of a port that employs 49,000 people and, alone, have driven over £2bn of foreign direct investment into their facilities over the past decade.

The scale of their operations is impressive and their embrace of new technology is a good example for any business secretary looking at how an industrial strategy, combined with a commitment to modernisation, can drive up productivity. 

Should rail priority be given to freight over passengers as we seek to reduce urban congestion, abate climate change and tackle poor air quality?

Skilled personnel, streamlined customs systems and I.T.-backed border processes, combined with a network of global shipping connections and substantial headroom to grow are the vital ingredients required if Great Britain is to grasp the trading opportunities of the future.

For private sector seaport operators like DP World and Forth Ports, you are only as good as your weakest link. 

As truly multi-modal operations – barge, rail and road – the Achilles’ heel is often the capacity in the strategic rail and road networks connecting their assets to key business and consumer markets in Greater London, the South East and beyond.

For example, both operators are driving more freight from road to rail. Yet to transit across London, you need to negotiate the congested North London rail line. 

Should priority be given to freight over passengers as we seek to reduce urban congestion, abate climate change and tackle poor air quality? Without substantial investment, the bottleneck soon becomes a rail-block; a drain on the growth potential of the port.

The Port of London Authority and its terminal operators have been working throughout the past three months to ensure that the UK has the food, fuel and medical supplies needed to sustain the economy. 

Only a few weeks ago, my constituency provided the backdrop as the UK welcomed the largest container ship in the world, HMM Algeciras, on its maiden voyage. 

As vessels continue to grow in size and trading patterns continue to evolve, we need to focus on a solutions-based approach, rather than a problems-based approach, in order for the country to continue to prosper.

The chief executive of Forth Ports recently wrote that ‘the coronavirus pandemic has brought the UK’s vulnerabilities to the fore. However, breakdown represents an opportunity for breakthrough to create a more resilient UK through Covid-19 recovery’. A sentiment I completely agree with. 

By encouraging the growth of new European-focused container and freight ferry routes, goods can avoid areas often prone to industrial unrest and other geopolitical factors, while promoting a distribution leg that brings goods closer to the point of production or consumption. 

In effect, regulatory change backed by public investment can fuel further growth in ports across the country by encouraging a low carbon alternative to the long pan-European lorry leg often used today.

 

Stephen Metcalfe is Conservative MP for South Basildon and East Thurrock 

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