As an island nation, our ports are a vital lifeline, for fridges and gadgets but also for food, or medical supplies.
Including those serving local populations, there are 120 ports in the UK, although the 20 largest handle almost 90% of traffic. They range from specialist container ports such as Felixstowe, to oil ports, or multi purpose facilities.
UK ports employ around 115,000 people, in itself a significant part of the economy. The part they play in the commercial world is far larger, with 95% of our imports and exports moving by sea.
Ports need to operate in a finely tuned way, to support business and people’s lives but they can be overtaken by events.
Causes Of Gridlock
Location may matter, with the impact of real wars, or trade wars felt at ports. Nature can intervene, with bad weather leaving vessels lined up outside a port, or through the pandemic we are living with.
Practical issues get in the way, from overbooking, to insufficient, or poorly maintained handling equipment and lack of space. A shortage of containers can cause delays, at present we are seeing the opposite.
Many UK ports are struggling to deal with a critical and debilitating build up of containers. This also occurred during much of 2020 and is Covid related, although the reality of Brexit has not helped.
Data from sources such as Container xChange shows that the problem has worsened since we left the EU, with container congestion spreading to more ports.
Although port congestion has other meanings, a core symptom is vessels arriving at a port being unable to berth, often anchored offshore. The point can come where sailing away empty, or unloaded is more economical than waiting.
Similar issues appear at a granular level, with trucks kept waiting, or spending additional time loading, as jammed containers are shuffled around.
Uncertainty adds to frustration amongst shippers and hauliers, already dealing with increased administration. In the end they will seek other routes, damaging business at a port and for a country.
A percentage of businesses will be directly affected, a wider range of UK industries will suffer from inventory shortages, or delays. Additional cost will creep in, to circumvent delay, or to change other plans at short notice.
With the UK already on track for a larger economic hit in 2021 than most developed nations, the situation needs to be addressed.
Building The Future
A truck waiting in a queue at a port is earning no income and holds up someone else’s business, which again holds up another business. Neither are many trade routes sacrosanct, people will find alternatives.
As one of the largest in Europe, the UK ports sector needs to find answers. That the problem is to an extent global is appreciated but there is a danger of permanent loss to ports in Europe which are performing more effectively.
Every possibility for clearing containers should be implemented, equipment maintained, capacity expanded where possible. The UK government has a notable part to play in encouraging this and looking at broader aspects.
Delaying forthcoming increases in Brexit red tape will help, as will speeding up the creation of border infrastructure. More importantly, there is a requirement to place long term practicality above political wishes.
Multiple issues have combined, the pandemic has brought labour shortages, trade imbalances, surges, or wanes, according to sector. Brexit has introduced more complex procedures on cross channel shipments.
They can however all be overcome and further cost, or business loss be negated. The freight industry is leading the way and stands ready to assist, prioritising the problem at a national level will help us to do so.