The chaos of recent years has emphasised the importance of trade and supply chain infrastructure, and UK ports have responded by striving to make the flow of cargo more efficient and sustainable.
British ports have performed well where other industries have struggled despite a range of challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit.
Speaking ahead of the Container Terminal Automation Conference 2021 (CTAC 2021), Richard Ballantyne, Chief Executive, British Ports Association (BPA), told PTI that the industry has so far had a “challenging” 2021.
“However, our sector should be congratulated for its steadfast and resolute work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, when other industries were scaling back operations,” Ballantyne said.
“Our ports remained open although some saw major disruption to traffic such as at passenger ports.”
According to Ballantyne, the effects of the Brexit disruption will not be realised until 2022, as that is when the final customs and health checks on EU traffic will be fully implemented and enforced by the UK government.
“Hopefully, the ports sector and the wider freight industry prepared,” he said.
Major areas of interest for the UK port sector in the coming years will be sustainability and cutting the impact of trade on local and national environments.
Across the wider industry, there is a greater appreciation of how automation and smart technologies can not only make trade more efficient but also greener, which has meant increased investment.
The UK is no different and Ballantyne believes the long-term economic and social importance of ports means there will be no let-up in efforts to improve trade.
“Ports provide infrastructure for generations and despite economic shocks the industry will, I would expect, continue to invest.
“New sustainability aspirations from national and international policy makers and port customers could also drive the need for green infrastructure at our ports.
“This, for example, could include facilitating power and fuels to ships to lessen their environmental impacts.”
Specifically, Ballantyne cited the use of automated cranes at London Gateway, and the development of shore power facilities across Scotland and at the Port of Southampton.
Many UK ports have started to use “new electric vehicles” and cleaner yard equipment generally.
There is now a private 5G network at the Port of Newlyn and automated wagon loading facilities at the Port of Tyne, as well as energy support facilities at the ports of Grimsby and Ramsgate, wind turbines at the Port of Blyth, solar panels at the Port of Hull and smart lighting at Belfast Harbour.
Ports are critically important to the UK economy and supply chain. In response to threats of congestions at the UK’s gateways and inland logistics, the government has unveiled some initiatives to encourage investment.
One of these plans is the freeport project. In March 2021 the government announced that eight ports would be given ‘freeport’ status in a bid to improve regional economies and national supply chain.
A freeport, also known as free zones, are designed to cut costs and bureaucracy and make it easier to trade by reducing the taxes on goods shipped through that area.
The new freeports were spread across the country and included London Gateway, the Port of Tilbury, Liverpool City Region, East Midlands, the Port of Felixstowe and the Port of Harwich, as well as the Port of Plymouth and the Humber region.
Ballantyne said this shows that the government “acknowledges the sector’s role in anchoring high-quality jobs and prosperity in regional economies”.
Despite that, there is still much to do in making sure the whole country benefits from the emphasis on free trade and innovation, with some areas of the country still lagging behind.
“Whilst welcome this is somewhat bittersweet as the locations are limited to an arbitrary number and there is now a situation where there is likely to be winners and losers.
“Also due to regional issues and political discussions the process elsewhere in the UK has been delayed so we are pressing government to align the processes for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as soon as is possible.
“What we successfully managed to convince government is that Freeports are more than just customs free sites as the latest initiative involves other benefits such as regarding enterprise facilities and planning easements.
“The challenge now is to promote a more inclusive policy, further.”