The bridge securing jobs and livelihoods
I was delighted that my Chairman was able to host the Exiting the European Union Committee in October and to show members first-hand the nature and scale of our operations that facilitate 17% of the UK’s trade in goods by value.
Suddenly ports, and Dover in particular, have become more popular than ever with politicians and the media, bringing into sharp focus the role we play in ensuring we are an effective trading nation. Indeed, the very recent exchanges in Parliament on the Customs Bill saw MPs, ministers and former ministers on all sides reflecting on the discussions they have had with the Port of Dover.
In the absence of being able to attend the Committee in person, I wanted the opportunity to set out my own thoughts on the Port’s priorities regarding the UK’s exit from the EU and, as the UK seeks to explore new global trading deals, its on-going role as a key gateway between the UK and its largest trading partner, the European Union.
My principal concern is a simple one and it is a message we have repeated constantly – to ensure that we can keep the traffic flowing. Dover, its sister ports of Calais and Dunkirk, and our ferry operator partners, are together effectively a bridge. Importantly, we are a bridge over the shortest and most cost-effective crossing point between the UK and mainland Europe providing the maximum capacity and efficiency to meet the demands of a just-in-time economy and the supply chains that serve it.
Two summers ago, we all witnessed the scale of disruption to our economy when industrial action in Calais and migrant activity at Coquelles brought gridlock. It caused fresh produce to decay, cars were not built and the Garden of England became a giant lorry park. Indeed, I was giving evidence before the Transport Committee on why there was no substitutable capacity anywhere in the UK that could take the type and volume of trade handled at Dover. Our just-in-time economy and the growth of e-commerce requires smooth and predictable trade flows and that is what Dover currently facilitates.
Our collective job is to deliver the outcome for which people voted. So how do we do that and maintain the smooth and predictable flows that will keep the economy moving and support the jobs that come from that? For that is what this ultimately comes down to – jobs and livelihoods.
We are playing our part. We have invested £85 million in our Eastern Docks Ferry Terminal and are investing £250 million in our Western Docks improvements. This investment is helping us provide more capacity to handle growing freight traffic volumes and improve the efficiency of our operations.
Government needs to play its part and I was therefore very encouraged by the Chancellor’s announcement in the budget of a further £3 billion to address the potential outcomes of negotiations over the UK’s exit from the EU, whatever they may be.
That is really the nub of it. We do not yet know what the outcome is likely to be. As the CBI and others have said, business needs certainty about what will happen and when.
What I am certain of is that, while we tackle the challenges that exiting the EU presents, we must also look at the opportunities. These could include infrastructure developments – IT and roads – that together could enhance the resilience of the strategic road network for international trade and reduce the likelihood of Operation Stack even further – something we hope will be picked up by the National Infrastructure Commission as it begins its assessment of the resilience of the national freight network.
Alongside these opportunities, we need to rise to the challenges. We are working on short, medium and long term solutions. Such solutions include the need to keep any future interventions by Government agencies away from the port and creating a one-stop-shop government so that different agencies and departments share data to avoid multiple interventions. The UK must apply to become a member of the Common Transit Convention so that freight vehicles continue to move between EU and non-EU countries (of which the UK will be one) with minimal friction and with the focus being on origin and destination. We need mutual recognition of animal products and those of animal origin.
During any transitional or implementation phase, we need business as usual while we all work towards the best possible outcome – one that must be technology driven.
So to conclude, I come back to my simple message. Whether it is in the short, medium or long term, we need to keep the traffic flowing. We need collectively to get trade via Dover right as even just a slight delay can lead to serious disruption to operations and to the supply chain; but ultimately getting it right will help secure jobs and livelihoods – and that is in all of our interests.