Backing for free ports grows as Immingham prepares for extra Brexit business
The Port of Immingham is to get a £36m upgrade to its container operation (Image: Susanne Hakuba)
By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 13 Sep 2018
Brexit could see new trade routes open in a bid to avoid grid-locked Dover. Parliamentary correspondent Patrick Daly reports on how this could benefit northern Lincolnshire.
When reading some national newspaper reports, readers could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Britain only has one major UK port.
Talk of sluggish custom checks at Dover and queues down the M20 have dominated reports about Brexit fears in recent months.
But Kent County Council, the jurisdiction the Port of Dover falls under, has written to ministers to remind them that in Kent alone there are another two ports, in the form of Ramsgate and Sheerness. With a bit of sprucing up, both could help take the pressure off Dover, Britain’s busiest port.
But the options do not end there. There are many other ports, especially in the north of the UK, which want to do the same.
Treasury minister Liz Truss at Immingham Docks
The Port of Immingham saw a huge boost last week when Associated British Ports (ABP) announced a £36m investment in its container terminal, having spent £14m doing the same in Hull last year.
ABP plans to buy new cranes, tug boats and other facilities after a surge of inquiries from companies looking at alternatives to the Channel.
In 2013, the Port of Immingham handled 68,000 container units, but by 2017 that number had grown to 183,000, taking it close to capacity.
DFDS , the second biggest shipping line serving the UK, has also increased its footprint at the port by 10 per cent in anticipation of Brexit’s potential impact.
Some suppliers are said to be looking to the North Sea ports for access in anticipation of Brexit disruption in the south-east. The move also has environmental motivations in a bid to tackle growing concerns over emissions.
Northern routes are growing in popularity as companies try to cut carbon emissions and ship direct to their markets, with each mile at sea using less energy than one on a backed-up motorway.
Around 90 per cent of containers from deep-sea crossings enter the UK through the south, but more than half of that cargo is destined for places north of Birmingham, making northern ports a more suitable destination.
Simon Bird, regional director for ABP Humber, is one of the strongest advocates for establishing free ports in the Humber
ABP, which operates all four ports across the Humber, appears ready to capitalise on this future growth with its recent investment.
A spokesman for the company told the Financial Times: “Cargoes originally destined for ports such as Dover are moving increasingly north as trade partners look at alternatives to mitigate any difficulties the more traditional routes may experience in future.”
A move that could make the deal even sweeter for those considering switching their goods into the Humber ports is the concept of free ports.
A free port is a zone within a country which is treated, for customs purposes, as an independent jurisdiction.
This means goods can be made, imported and exported in the zone without incurring normal trade barriers like customs duties or taxes.
The idea has reared its head because it would enable UK ports to escape taxes imposed by Brussels after the UK leaves the European Union, allowing Immingham, Grimsby, Hull and Goole to remain attractive trade destinations.
Immingham is the largest UK port by tonnage - and it is planning to expand (Image: Susanne Hakuba)
The notion of free ports has intrigued ministers, with the number two at the Treasury, Liz Truss, and Brexit minister Suella Braverman both paying visits to ABP’s Immingham base in recent months to discuss the idea.
And now MPs have followed it up by creating their own group in support of free ports. Cleethorpes MP Martin Vickers was elected chair of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for free ports on Wednesday, September 5, with representatives from some of the biggest ports in the UK turning up to give their backing.
Support has come from across the political spectrum, with former international development secretary Priti Patel signing up to be vice-chair, while Birkenhead MP Frank Field, the Labour Party stalwart who is currently sitting as an independent MP in protest of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, is also a member of the group.
Teesside MPs Anna Turley and Simon Clark – both proponents of free ports – are also involved in its running.
Cleethorpes MP Martin Vickers, pictured with Liz Truss, chief secretary to the Treasury during her visit to Immingham docks, has been voted chair of the free ports APPG
Mr Vickers said: “It was my idea that we should initiate an APPG for free ports as a potential vehicle to explore opportunities for growth through our ports.
“That will be an obvious benefit to my constituency, with Immingham being the largest port by tonnage in the country.
“Free ports are not just a vehicle to boost the national economy – it will be a great boost to coastal communities, some of which are badly in need of regeneration,” said the Conservative MP.
“I know we have the support locally of ABP, the Hull and Humber chamber of commerce and the seafood processing industry.
"The aim is to give the whole idea a head of steam and keep it in the headlines and constantly remind ministers that, post-Brexit, this is a potential way of giving a massive boost to the trade opportunities and economies in areas that need a lift.”
MPs have secured time for a debate in the House of Commons on the role of free ports, with a date to be set after the party conference season break.
Mr Clarke, MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, told MPs when petitioning for a debate that free ports were a global concept which could benefit coastal areas.
Immingham Docks is to undergo a £36-million expansion in a bid to attract more post-Brexit business (Image: David Lee Photography Ltd)
“The idea is not a brainwave that just the two of us [he and Frank Field] sitting here today have come up,” he told the backbench business committee.
“A number of studies have reflected the benefit that they could deliver to our economy, and indeed the benefit that they are currently delivering in a number of other places worldwide, ranging from Geneva to Shanghai.”
A report published by Mace Group in June calculated that establishing free ports on the south bank of the Humber could create 64,000 jobs and make every household in the region £1,500 better off annually.
ABP sent a representative to the free port APPG meeting, along with other major names in the port and shipping world, including DP World, which operates London Gateway and Southampton port.
ABP, a privately-owned company, has been one of the most supportive voices in the lobbying for a free port trial.
Simon Bird, ABP’s Humber director, told the Telegraph in May that he would not only like to see free ports trialled at the estuary’s ports but that he wanted the government to consider establishing a free trade zone along the M62, meaning goods could travel across to Liverpool without incurring any UK customs charges.
DP World and ABP are both members of the UK Major Ports Group, a trade association for nine of the largest ports, including the Humber, Tees, Liverpool, Bristol, Belfast, Felixstowe and Port Talbot in Wales.
Tim Morris, chief executive of the UK Major Ports Group, said there was support for free ports across the country.
“There are a number of port operators throughout the UK who are interested in exploring the potential of free ports – it is not a regionally specific opportunity,” said Mr Morris.
“We see it as a national opportunity. We are all duty-bound to find the opportunities in the current political environment and free ports could well be one of those.
“The practise of free ports in the south-east of the United States of America have been very effective catalysts in attracting investment and creating exciting jobs, as well as creating opportunities out in the hinterlands around the port, with added-value activity such as manufacturing.
“Some of our big port operators, like ABP and PD Ports at Tees, have been very vocal in their support for it.”
The Brexit pressure might be being felt at Dover but the UK has ports which are willing and even investing right now in order to be ready to play their part in keeping trade channels open after exit day.
And with growing support across the country from MPs and port operators, free ports could well be a reality in the Humber and elsewhere once Britain leaves the EU.