Brexit: Inside Portsmouth's new £25m ‘white elephant’ border control post sitting empty after government’s inspection U-turn leaves city council absorbing ‘phenomenal cost’

PORTSMOUTH’S newly built £25m, two-acre border control post has been dubbed a ‘white elephant’ by port bosses following an ‘appalling’ government U-turn.

Tuesday, 5th July 2022, 7:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 5th July 2022, 9:35 pm

Built in record time to open for the government’s July 1 deadline, the new Portsmouth International Port facility was created specifically to handle inspections on animal products, plant and forest products on imports of goods coming from the EU.

However, in April the government announced that it would not be implementing the next phase of its border operating model - meaning that this bespoke, purpose-built facility will stand empty while racking up running costs of £1m a year.

The leader of the city council Gerald Vernon-Jackson slammed the government’s actions as ‘appalling’, and added: ‘It has been a mess from start to finish.

Portsmouth International Port's Border Control Post, off Mile End Road, Portsmouth. Pictured is: Mike Sellers, port director at Portsmouth International Port in the roof space at Border Control Post. Picture: Sarah Standing (040722-1272)

‘They’ve really treated Portsmouth very badly.’

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Portsmouth City Council council took a loan to cover the £7.8m shortfall and faces interest payments and charges to run the facility as it remains closed and out of operation.

Cllr Vernon-Jackson added: ‘The most serious issue is the phenomenal cost the council has had to absorb.

Portsmouth International Port's Border Control Post, off Mile End Road, Portsmouth. Picture: Sarah Standing (040722-1156)

‘We’re almost £8m short and the government are refusing to pay that. They’re also refusing to pay the running costs of £1m a year.

‘We’ve got to pick up the bill, which means council services are at risk.

‘As a council we have been left to foot the government's bill, when budgets are already stretched.

‘We followed their requirements, made sure this would meet their deadlines, and we are now faced with an empty BCP for the foreseeable future.’

Portsmouth International Port's Border Control Post, off Mile End Road, Portsmouth. Picture: Sarah Standing (040722-1176)

More than 60 members of staff were set to start work running the facility, which was built to the government’s exacting specifications.

The criteria for the post were set out by the government as part of the Border Operating Model, which outlined how ports were expected to manage physical checks on products of animal origin and plants following the UK's EU exit.

Port director Mike Sellers said that the U-turn on the border control model was decided on the back of the cost of living crisis, when it was realised that the high cost of import control would come down to individual consumers in the UK.

He said that the government’s decision ‘is the right one - it’s just two years too late’.

Portsmouth International Port's Border Control Post, off Mile End Road, Portsmouth. Picture: Sarah Standing (040722-1163)

‘This infrastructure stands here, empty, and is costing the port and the city council over £1m a year to keep it mothballed.

‘We’re not blessed with a lot of land. We’re flanked by the navy and the MoD, we’ve got the motorway behind us. This is taking up two acres of operational land.’

Help to support ports to meet the new operating model was provided through funding from the Ports Infrastructure Fund, Portsmouth applied for £32m and received £17.1m.

As a result the port scaled back on its plans to also cater for the welfare of live animals through an additional facility.

Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Port Association, said: ‘It’s very sad, but this has been constructed with a different view of trade in mind, and the government has moved the goalposts.

‘Now we don’t really need most of this physical infrastructure.

Portsmouth International Port's Border Control Post, off Mile End Road, Portsmouth. Picture: Sarah Standing (040722-1282)

‘They compelled ports to prepare these facilities in time, with great cost to the public purse.

‘It is a bit bemusing for the sector, which has now been left with effectively white elephants and not knowing what to do.’

The post is a highly specialised facility, comprising of temperature controlled chambers and sterile areas to prevent cross-contamination of plant and other products. As a result air-lock quarantine areas have been created and dedicated spaces for different categories of goods, which can only be accessed through separate entrances.

This means that it has limited use except for the purpose for which it was built - and physical checks on EU imports have been postponed until a new Target Operating Model is in place at the end of 2023.

The TOM is expected to use technology to streamline the movement of cargo at UK borders with a significant need for physical inspections for ‘high risk’ products only.

Pointing out that before Brexit, checks on goods were largely done in EU countries, Cllr Vernon-Jackson added: ‘I have a real worry that food coming into Britain is not being inspected.

‘[After Brexit], goods coming to Britain are meant to be inspected here, but they’re not.

‘I’m really worried about safety for our residents as there might be food that is unsafe.

‘There might be forestry products coming in with bugs on that can then cause problems for trees in Britain.

‘Biosecurity is increasingly important, but the government seems to be in a complete mess.’

Penny Mordaunt, Conservative MP for Portsmouth North, met Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, who announced the delays to the new border check model in April.

After their meeting, Ms Mordaunt said: ‘Portsmouth port has had unprecedented investment on both the freight and passenger side of the business.

‘The port welcomes the new operating model, which is also good for consumers as it keeps costs down.

‘However we need to find a new use for some redundant infrastructure and today I met with the minister and his team to discuss those options and support.

‘There are complex rules covering these kinds of investments but we are determined to find solutions.

‘We will all be in regular contact over the summer before the new operating model is launched in October.’

Portsmouth International Port's Border Control Post, off Mile End Road, Portsmouth. Pictured is: (l-r) Mike Sellers, port director at Portsmouth International Port., Richard Ballantyne, chief executive at British Ports Association and Gerald Vernon-Jackson, leader of Portsmouth City Council. Picture: Sarah Standing (040722-1206)
Portsmouth International Port's Border Control Post, off Mile End Road, Portsmouth. Picture: Sarah Standing (040722-1182)
Portsmouth International Port's Border Control Post, off Mile End Road, Portsmouth. Picture: Sarah Standing (040722-1149)
Portsmouth International Port's Border Control Post, off Mile End Road, Portsmouth. Pictured is: (l-r) Mike Sellers, port director at Portsmouth International Port., Richard Ballantyne, chief executive at British Ports Association and Gerald Vernon-Jackson, leader of Portsmouth City Council. Picture: Sarah Standing (040722-1224)
Portsmouth International Port's Border Control Post, off Mile End Road, Portsmouth. Picture: Sarah Standing (040722-1170)
Portsmouth International Port's Border Control Post, off Mile End Road, Portsmouth. Picture: Sarah Standing (040722-1164)