Portsmouth International Port left short on time and money to deliver Brexit changes

BEFORE the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK the hot topic on everyone’s lips was Brexit.

Monday, 1st March 2021, 7:00 am
Updated Monday, 1st March 2021, 1:38 pm

And now, despite the fact we have exited the transition period in our long departure from the European Union, there are still changes to come.

These still could affect our day-to-day lives in Portsmouth – from potential congestion on the M275 to a rise in supermarket prices.

City officials are increasingly concerned the government has not left them with enough time or money to make the necessary changes at Portsmouth International Port.

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(Photo by Andrew Hasson/Getty Images)

There are just four months until the council-owned port is meant to put its new border operating model in place.

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But what is this border operating model?

Following the UK’s departure from the EU, new processes are now in place for goods exported and imported into the country.

Port director Mike Sellers (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

To implement this approach, last summer the government announced a border operating model for how goods will be managed - to be ready by July 1.

This involves new border control posts (BCPs), to carry out statutory health checks on goods, as well as welfare checks for animals – including race horses.

In Portsmouth these goods account for 50 per cent of the trade and are worth £2m annually in port dues.

So to ensure the city port could continue to operate as usual after July, a £32m bid was submitted to the government in October.

Port bosses asked for a slice of a £200m national Port Infrastructure Fund – open to sea ports, air ports and rail ports.

This cash was needed to cover:

n A products of animal origin BCP including land acquisition of nearby McKinley’s Yard, construction and automated internal gate

n A live animal BCP (for equine and high-grade breeding animals – not for slaughter)

n A replacement roof for Border Force inspections in the customs turnout shed

n IT software changes to connect to a new HMRC system

n The extension of freight gates to streamline imports and export freight to minimise impact of lorries backing on to the M275

But the Port Infrastructure Fund was ‘substantially oversubscribed’ nationwide.

A total of 53 ports asked for cash amounting to £450m – more than double the amount available. Some 41 of these were successful in getting cash but none were given the amount requested.

As reported, Portsmouth International Port was awarded £17.1m – leaving a sizeable shortfall of almost £15m.

In response the port trimmed its proposals considerably, aiming to deliver the ‘critical elements’ needed - the products of animal origins BCP, which deals with fresh produce, and the new IT system.

To add salt to the wound though, the money given to the port is still £5.2m short to fund these ‘essentials.’

Port director, Mike Sellers, said: ‘In terms of what we bid for everything was relevant, the government told us it would be eligible.

‘And now, even though we’ve cut back on our plans we are still short.

‘We have a critical role to make sure trade is not jeopardised when new border controls come into force, however we are far from having the funds to meet even the most basic requirements.

‘Unless we proceed, at risk, the situation for trade would be severe and unsustainable when government import checks are in place. This has the ability to affect the UK’s commercial sector at a time when economic recovery is paramount.

‘We also bid for funds to extend our freight gates which is relevant to exports to streamline the service and avoid some of the issues around lorries backing up on to the M275.

‘Because of the lack of funding we do this which could mean delays to the export products as well, potentially causing a build up of lorries out onto the motorway.’

With plans for a live animal BCP - which is required for breeding animals and racehorses - scrapped concerns were raised by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) about the future of the industry as there are currently no relevant UK facilities or reciprocal ones across the channel.

Including the live animal BCP at Portsmouth would require an additional £7m, for a trade that brings in around £35,000 a year to the city.

According to the NFU statistics 30,000 breeding animals (pigs, sheep and cattle) are exported every year through Portsmouth, with a similar number imported. And 9,000 racehorses come through the port annually.

Portsmouth City Council leader, Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, said: ‘As a local authority owned port experiencing untenable pressures to provide for the city, we cannot be expected to take any financial liability to cover costs for government required changes to imports.

‘The government had previously proposed to fully fund an inland BCP, however the location chosen was not convenient for hauliers using the port and would have meant a significant detour. We provided an alternative, at much lower cost, within the port site.

‘UK industry is already facing difficulty with exports, causing potential long term damage to the industry. We do not want this to be the situation in six months regarding imports.

‘Yet again we are calling on the government to step up and make sure adequate funding is in place to successfully implement the biggest changes to imports in a generation.’

Inland facilities for live animals are currently being built for Dover, Channel Tunnel and Holyhead – but city port officials have claimed these are a temporary solution as opposed to the longer term BCPs in ports.

So now the Portsmouth International Port is left with no choice but to press ahead with plans for the ‘critical elements’ of the border operating model as quickly as possible.

However, with the clock ticking Mr Sellers said they would ‘continue to lobby the government’ for the extra funding.

A government spokesman said: ‘We are working closely with our ports to ensure that they will be ready for full border checks starting in July, including through the £200m Port Infrastructure Fund.

‘Portsmouth port alone has received over £17m in grants specifically to help build new infrastructure needed.

‘A number of UK border control posts will be designated for live animal imports including Dover, Sevington (Eurotunnel) and Holyhead, which are the ports with the highest volumes of animal imports from the EU.’

‘Ports will not be ready’

EVEN if all funding bids were suddenly met, it is unlikely the changes at Portsmouth International Port - as well as those across the country - will be ready by July 1.

Port director Mike Seller, said a minimum of 18 months was needed to construct the new border control post.

However, delays to award funding have left ports nationwide scrambling to prepare.

Mr Sellers said: ‘We are not going to be ready for July. Projects of this scale take time and speaking to other ports I know that they are in the same situation.

‘There needs to be a decision made soon if the government is still set on July 1.

‘The other issue even if there is a small percentage of ports or inland facilities that will be ready by July, they are going to be overwhelmed by imports.’

Richard Ballantyne, the chief executive of the British Ports Association, agreed. 'We are thinking more than half the facilities in the UK are not going to be ready by July, possibly more.

‘So the government needs to decide what is going to happen if these facilities aren't ready.

‘Are they going to extend the time, and push back the date or are they going to enforce the facilities where they can?

'Or they could take a mixed approach - they may choose to enforce at some places that are ready but not at the others.

'I think the government is going to have to make some difficult decisions. We have asked the to share what plan B is, we are not sure what the next move will be

'If government did stump up more money it would help to get things though but even then they have not given enough time.

‘In our day-to-day lives I think we will see the price of food rise as a result of potential delays at ports, such as Portsmouth.’

City MP's urge government to 'come up with the cash'

THROUGHOUT the lead-up to the launch of new border operating models officials in Portsmouth have been trying to involve government figures in the process.

Portsmouth International Port hosted visits in October from Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and Portsmouth MP Penny Mordaunt, and in November from maritime minister Robert Courts.

And in January this year council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson wrote to Mr Gove, transport secretary Grant Shapps, and environment secretary George Eustice.

A response was issued by Julia Lopez, parliamentary secretary at the cabinet office, acknowledging the situation but with no mention of further funding becoming available.

Portsmouth South MP Stephen Morgan, of the Labour party, accused government of being ‘short-sighted’

‘The country needs Portsmouth to build this vital infrastructure, but this short-sighted government continues to withhold the necessary funding,’ he said.

'Not only will the new Border Control Points facilitate post-Brexit trade that is critical for our economy, but revenue from the port also funds local public services.

‘If the government doesn’t come up with the cash, I am concerned that the chaos we have seen with UK exports in recent months will become a reality for imports in Portsmouth and elsewhere come July."

‘Cabinet office ministers, including the port’s MP, must respond to my concerns and take action now to avoid this becoming a reality.’

Portsmouth North MP Ms Mordaunt, said that some of the cash cut from the bid was contingency funding but said the issue of the live animal BCP was still pressing.

She said: ‘This (the live animal BCP) would enable us to continue and build the business but also strengthen the UK’s resilience.

‘There is no point building sites elsewhere when you could, at lower cost develop our existing service.

‘This is still a live issue as far as I'm concerned and I will continue to make the case to Defra and the border delivery group that this is a sensible way forward. The NFU supports our approach as do many involved in this sector.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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