When talk turns to industrial globalisation it tends to focus on the opportunities for low cost manufacturing in the Far East or Eastern Europe. But the corollary to that is the need to get goods to market back in the UK efficiently.
At the moment most of these goods come by ship and most arrive at ports in the South East. The problem is that our road network is not geared up for this. It was designed to cope with the movement of goods from the manufacturing centres of the Midlands (though there are those who say, with some justification, that it doesn’t even do this particularly well).
As imports increase there is clearly going to be growing pressure on the infrastructure links to the major ports – notably Southampton, London and Felixstowe-Harwich. Anyone who uses the A12 will know that there are already problems.
So it is not surprising that infrastructure concerns have been highlighted by the responses to the government’s discussion document for the Ports Policy Review.
The concerns are evident in the response from the Haven Gateway which includes the ports of Felixstowe, Harwich, Ipswich and Mistley. It is particularly concerned as major port developments are planned for Felixstowe South and Bathside Bay, Harwich.
The response was prepared in consultation with both the Haven Gateway’s public and private sector partners, including port operators and users. It stressed the importance of the need for good access to local ports and the provision of the necessary land-based infrastructure to support port development.
Chairman of the Haven Gateway, George Courtauld, said: “The underlying key messages in our response are that providing good quality access to our major reports is essential, as is the provision of the other land-based infrastructure required to ensure that they can contribute to local as well the national economic growth targets.”
And the Freight Transport Association warned: “Failure to provide the necessary infrastructure will result in congestion and cost increases, seriously affecting the competitiveness of the UK economy.”
It argued that while the growth of a private ports policy should be encouraged, it would be folly to expect investors to be required to pay for the supporting road and rail facilities. Such a requirement would deter potential port developers, to the detriment of the whole economy.
“It is the responsibility of the government to provide such infrastructure rather than rely on industry.”
The FTA argues that it is not for government to decide where it wants freight to flow, and where it wants the private developments needed to support the transport of freight and goods, however it is the proper role of government to facilitate the developments. “In this respect the government must undertake an urgent overhaul of the unnecessarily lengthy planning approval system which adds uncertainty and discourages investment in ports infrastructure.”
It calls on the government to review and facilitate production of demand forecasts from independent sources which show the key corridors of freight movement, and project capacity shortfalls on the transport infrastructure along which the freight moves.
“These should be published and form the basis for the government’s priority infrastructure enhancement projects that support the freight corridors. This priority list will represent enhancements to those parts of the transport network that will be funded through the public purse within a stated time frame.”
There are also lobbyists using the ports consultation to press the government to move traffic off the road and push more onto coastal shipping and inland waterway.
John Dodwell, managing director of Rolandon Water and Sea Freight Advisory Services, says the government “should be tougher with lorry traffic and use the stick of taxes on lorry traffic which affects all operators rather than the carrot of grants for water freight users which benefit only those who apply.”
Rolandon advises industry and national, regional and local government on how to move goods off the road and on to water, both inland and coastal. Dodwell says there is too much emphasis on container ports in the South East, to the detriment of ports in the Bristol Channel and in the estuaries of the Mersey, Humber and Tees.
He argues that the advantages of short sea movements from the continent are in danger of being overlooked and lorry miles could be reduced by encouraging freight traffic to use ports nearer the point of origin or the final destination point.
For example, each year 41,000 tonnes of pulp paper, which used to travel from Holland to Tilbury in the Thames and then by road to Workington in Cumbria, now moves by ship from Holland direct to Workington.
“In the meantime, as grants are currently available to rail users to take containers off the road, they should also be available to coastal ships and barges,” he says.
The government should “rigorously pursue” its investigations into road pricing so that all the social and other external costs of lorry usage are taken into account. He said this was essential to stimulate the use of inland waterways and coastal shipping to reduce HGV mileage.
With the consultation now closed, the Department for Transport has the task of formulating policy proposals to ensure a sustainable and successful ports sector. Clearly there is a role for coastal shipping and rail in moving goods from the ports but it seems inevitable that a major road building programme is required to create the infrastructure to avoid massive bottlenecks at the ports.
But we all know how unpopular road building is with the general public. The question is will the government have the bottle to do the right thing?