UK ports unprepared for Brexist

Peter Ward

The port of Dover could face chaos unless UK government allows food inspections at inland premises, warns Peter Ward, chief executive, United Kingdom Warehousing Association.

UK ro-ro ports such as Dover are “catastrophically unprepared for Brexit” he said. The ports could face chaos if so-called ‘Rest of the World’ (ROW) rules apply after Brexit to inspection of food imports from the EU.

Ward says there are no inspection facilities at ro-ro ports such as Dover, nor the time or space to build any ahead of the UK’s planned March 2019 exit from the EU. This could result in unprecedented delays at the port, he said.

“Irrespective of the final form of Brexit – ‘no deal’, ‘hard’ Brexit or ‘soft’ Brexit – we expect an interruption in food supply chains. Market forces will mitigate the risk of delays by holding more stock closer to consumers in the UK, which may be good news for the warehousing industry in the long term, but from March 2019 there is simply not sufficient capacity nor the infrastructure to cope.”

Ward argued that developing the necessary infrastructure will take years and considerable investment, illustrating the point by using as an example a facility at London Gateway, an 19,000 sqm multi-temperature state-of-the-art purpose-built facility with 22 loading doors and sufficient power to plug in hundreds of reefer containers.

“44% of what we eat comes into Dover from the EU, which is the equivalent of 1,000 trucks per day through the port on ferries and the tunnel,” said Ward.

“If we are going to take real control of our borders, how this food is going to be inspected consistent with ROW rules from March 2019 is critical, especially as port of Dover doesn’t have any such facilities as those at London Gateway, nor the necessary plug in points to power temperature-controlled vehicles.

“The only way to keep food cool while waiting for inspection will be to keep diesel engines running, costing more money and impacting badly on the environment.”

Although London Gateway was built for non-EU trade, as a container port it has been designed to meet the requirements of the future. Even so, Peter Ward emphasizes that there is no such thing as “frictionless trade” either at London Gateway or anywhere else.
Accordingly, on behalf of the UK warehousing industry, UKWA is calling for urgent action from government to recognize and respond to the challenges ahead.

“We are proposing that the government considers a change of legislation to allow food inspections at inland premises,” Ward said. “Currently inspections must be conducted within the port boundary, but post-Brexit clearly this will be impractical.

“Such a change would bring opportunities for UKWA members and others to adapt existing premises to accommodate inspection facilities and bring online necessary capacity more quickly.”

He acknowledged that given the volumes involved, location of facilities would need to be close to both power supply and a sustainable labour pool, which in turn will trigger other concerns.

“The question is how the trade-off between national planning policy, devolved to local authorities, and resistance of local residents to large warehousing or distribution developments on the doorstep will be balanced against the need to ensure the nation continues to be fed.”

Ward added that UKWA was consulting with government and providing feedback from members on all these issues, “supplying the necessary detail to enable coherent and effective policy to be formulated going forward”. He added: “UKWA is here to help government understand the perspective of the industry on the real impact Brexit is likely to have, particularly on food supply chains.

“Meantime, we are advising our members to prepare for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit and the 300,000 business that currently trade with the EU only to classify goods per UCC (Unified Customs Code), apply for deferment accounts, and find partners and trade association that can help them prepare for the turbulent times ahead.”

At the time of writing, no one at the Port of Dover had responded to questions from Lloyd’s Loading List about the issue.
However Lloyd’s Loading List reports that in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, port sources who have been briefed on UK government thinking expect that the UK will “wave trucks through” UK ferry ports pretty much as they do now, with minimal physical checks, allowing any necessary customs clearances to be handled inland.

The hope is that these steps would avert a congestion crisis at key ro-ro facilities such as Holyhead and Dover, which many in the industry regard as a real risk unless Britain and Brussels come to a workable arrangement on the UK’s departure from the EU. Only 1-2% of inbound lorries currently experience any kind of checks at all, largely to circumvent potential people trafficking or cigarette smuggling, or on the basis of specific intelligence.

The best outcome, most ports industry people believe, would be a negotiated settlement that gives the UK at least the main benefits that flow from EU customs union membership. While there is little apparent enthusiasm for inland clearance, which would probably entail the use of customs agents at cost to the consignee, it would at least avert worst-case scenarios.

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