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Ports: the backbone of Global Britain

Trade and maritime are the foundation of our prosperity, past, present and future

By David Leighton  

The ambition to grow international trade and exports is central to the Government’s efforts to build a stronger economy for the future. As an island nation, ports handle 95% of the nation’s trade in goods and therefore have a pivotal role to play in achieving that goal. ABP’s 21 ports around Britain alone handle around one quarter of the nation’s seaborne trade, support 119,000 jobs and contribute
£7.5 billion to the economy every year. Our commitment to continuing to invest, to develop our ports and to offer exciting opportunities for new manufacturing, will help us continue to boost the nation’s trade and exports, and increase that contribution still further.

Since 2016, ABP has invested £250 million in new infrastructure and facilities across our ports to help deliver more secure and resilient supply chains, and to help our customers’ businesses
to grow. The Port of Southampton, the UK’s number one export port and number one for trade outside the EU, has benefitted from major investment in new automotive handling facilities, essential to facilitate the expansion of exports
by leading manufacturers such as JLR and BMW Mini. In doing so, ABP is helping support some 23,000 jobs in the automotive sector around the country, including 11,700 in the West Midlands. Southampton’s annual exports are valued at
 £40 billion, with some £36 billion destined for countries outside the EU, living up to its popularity as Britain’s Gateway to the World. There is no doubt the Port of Southampton in itself is crucial to achieving a vision of global Britain, built on increasing trade and exports.

On the Humber, the UK’s busiest trading estuary, ABP has recently invested £50 million
 to double our container handling capacity in Hull and Immingham, improving connectivity to Europe and the rest of the world for businesses across the North and Midlands both to
Europe and beyond. The Humber’s proximity
to a number of customers located across the Northern Powerhouse and key distribution hubs in the Midlands also means that importers and exporters can avoid congested infrastructure in parts of the South East, which is better for supply chains and the environment.

As well as facilitating efficient access to global markets, ports also present a major opportunity to increase manufacturing and exports, helping re-balance the economy. Many ports offer large areas of development land with excellent marine and landside access; they are the ideal locations for the import of components or raw materials and the export of finished products. That’s why ports can unlock fresh investment in new export-led manufacturing in many areas around the country, ranging from the Hull International Enterprise Park, one of the largest development sites in the UK, to Port Talbot. Many of these areas have socioeconomic challenges and are where new jobs are badly needed.

Government policy is of course key
to creating the right environment to drive investment in ports and enable the nation’s ports to flourish. The current framework for
a market-led approach to port development has been highly successful in attracting private sector investment in new port infrastructure and facilities, avoiding reliance on the public purse. However, there is more Government can do.

One example is creating a free ports
policy that can give Britain a competitive
edge in attracting inward investment in new manufacturing at port development sites. A free ports policy can achieve this by removing the need to pay duty on imported components and raw materials intended for use in manufacturing, and which remain within secure areas. In doing so, the UK can add to the suite of measures
it can deploy to attract investment in that fiercely competitive global environment. In some quarters there is some reticence about such a policy, although reservations appear to be typically based on selected examples, both historical and current; we can use experience
of free ports in the UK, Europe and the rest
of the world to design a policy that will deliver beneficial effects and which is fit for the 21st century.

Government can also better capture the importance of ports for increasing trade and exports within the wider planning system and
in determining how it prioritises investment in transport infrastructure. ABP welcomes the proposed review of port planning guidance and we hope that the outcome will enhance the ability of ports to develop, serving the needs of their customers and the wider economy. Road and rail links connecting ports which are fit-for-purpose are of course an essential part of making sure businesses have the best possible access to global markets.

ABP continues to advocate a broader ‘Trade First’ policy review, cutting across Government. That’s because transforming Britain’s future as a trading nation depends not only on backing our ports; aligning a much wider range of policy with the clear objective of boosting trade and exports is vital, as is marshalling a strong and shared national commitment to this endeavour. A strong partnership between Government and industry must be the foundation, and the Department for Transport’s Maritime2050 strategy is an excellent example of how this can be achieved.

As a trading nation and a maritime nation, Britain has always been global. Perhaps it is best to consider the concept of Global Britain as
a reminder that trade and maritime are the foundation of our prosperity, past, present and future. In that sense, it is clear that ports are the backbone of Global Britain.

Read more from the global Britain report

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