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Leaving the EU: Port of Sheerness

Volume 648: debated on Tuesday 30 October 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered use of the Port of Sheerness after the UK leaves the EU.

I will try to keep my remarks in order, Mr Bone, and I hope everyone else will, too. Whether or not the Government agree an acceptable post-Brexit deal with the European Union, something will have to be done to relieve pressure on the port of Dover. As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, most of the roll-on/roll-off traffic in south-east England is via the Dover-Calais route. That means that Dover handles a huge volume of business. It is one of the world’s busiest passenger ports. In 2017, some 11.7 million passengers, 2.6 million lorries, 2.2 million cars and motorcycles, and 80,000 coaches passed through Dover. In addition, Dover’s cargo terminal handles 300,000 tonnes and 9,000 containers every year, and business is increasing. As you can imagine, Mr Bone, with all that traffic heading in and out of Dover, the local roads are badly congested, even at the best of times. When there is a problem with the ferries—often caused by strike action at Calais—that congestion gets even worse and Dover becomes gridlocked.

The Dover traffic assessment project, otherwise known as the Dover TAP, holds around 1,000 lorries on the A20 just outside Dover and has been used hundreds of times recently. Thankfully, Dover TAP has been preventing a repeat of Operation Stack. I am sure my hon. Friend will recall it bringing the roads in Kent to a near standstill for a month in 2015. If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, what happened to Kent’s roads in 2015 could look like a walk in the park. Indeed, unless a contingency plan is put in place to combat a no-deal scenario, the situation could become critical and have a huge impact not only on Kent’s economy, but on that of the UK as a whole.

Highways England has been looking for an alternative to Operation Stack, including closing the M26 and using it as a car park. In my opinion, such an option would not solve the problem, but simply move it from one part of Kent to another. Some days, 10,000 lorries pass through the port of Dover in a 24-hour period. If those lorries were held up, that would be equivalent to a queue more than 90 miles long. That is a lot of potential traffic congestion, and it could see whole swathes of the south-east grind to a halt, but such a scenario is avoidable. Parking up thousands of lorries does not have to happen, because there are other solutions. For instance, rather than relying on Operation Stack or similar parking arrangements that have not worked in the past, would it not be better to provide lorry drivers with alternative routes to and from the continent? The port of Sheerness offers one such alternative.

Mr Bone, you might ask, “Why Sheerness?” Well, it has a number of advantages. For a start it has a ro-ro terminal that is available for use today. It was built to service the Olau Line, which ran a ferry service from Sheerness to the Netherlands. Although that ferry service stopped running in 1994, the ro-ro terminal is still in perfect working order. The port of Sheerness has other excellent facilities and is already one of the major ports for the importation of cars into the UK. Unlike Dover, it has plenty of spare space and room to expand. Although Sheerness is further away from Calais by sea than Dover, it is closer by road to London and the midlands, so the longer sea journey from France would be counter-balanced by a shorter road journey to the lorry’s final destination. In addition, Sheerness is closer than Dover to the Netherlands, which opens up the possibility of routing more freight via the Dutch ports, such as Rotterdam.

It is worth pointing out that Sheerness is the only port in England with water as deep as that at Rotterdam, so it would make a perfect partner. Another advantage of encouraging a Rotterdam-Sheerness route is that the road journey from Germany and eastern Europe to Rotterdam is shorter than that to Calais. Once again, although the sea journey would be greater, there would be a saving on road travel at both ends. While having a longer sea journey might seem a disadvantage, in a post-Brexit world it would be an advantage, because it would give more time for the customs paperwork to be sorted out electronically at either end. That is what is happening at Felixstowe, which manages to import £86 billion of goods every year from inside and outside the EU without the need for lengthy customs checks. Such a system replicated in other ports, such as Sheerness, would ensure frictionless borders and no hold-ups.

One final advantage of using the port of Sheerness is the amount of commerce that already takes place in the area. In my constituency, I have the Morrisons regional distribution centre; the new Aldi regional distribution centre; the Kemsley paper mill, which is the second largest fibre-based paper operation in Europe; and the Sittingbourne Eurolink, which is one of the largest industrial and manufacturing estates in southern England. As you can imagine, Mr Bone, all those industries generate a lot of lorry movements, many from the continent. Routing those lorries via Sheerness would reduce pressure on Dover and makes a lot of sense logistically.

Making better use of the port of Sheerness post-Brexit would require some investment. For example, the A249 dual carriageway would have to be extended half a mile into the docks. An improved electronic customs system like that at Felixstowe would have to be installed to ensure lorries could be cleared with as little delay as possible. I appreciate that that would come at a cost to the Exchequer, but when we consider the wider impact on the country if goods are held up at either Calais or Dover and the costs involved with providing an alternative to Operation Stack, the investment would be a small price to pay for what would effectively become a safety net for Dover.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this important debate. It highlights an issue that is topical for both his constituency and the wider economy.

Our ports are key to our economic success. They deliver 95% of our exports and imports. I hope that we can agree that first and foremost, the United Kingdom ports are exemplary. My experience visiting our ports as Maritime Minister has reinforced my belief that our ports are the best in the world. We have the most liberalised ports sector in Europe and arguably the world, with the private sector predominating and ports competing to attract and facilitate trade with both the EU and the rest of the world, all on a fully commercial basis with minimal expense to the taxpayer. This responsible sector has invested vigorously throughout fluctuating conditions in world trade and the domestic economy. It has adapted to changing patterns of demand, including radical changes in the requirements for energy generation over recent years. Consequently, it is well placed to meet the challenges and opportunities that the country will welcome as we resume our position as an independent trading power.

The Government have set a highly facilitative context for private investment through the national policy statement for ports, which was designated in 2012. It sets a strong presumption in favour of socially and environmentally responsible development. The sector has long recognised its environmental stewardship duties as it often occupies sensitive sites at the land/water interface. Moreover, ports have permitted development rights that help to facilitate modest adaptation of port estates in a nimble way where that has no adverse environmental implications.

Our ports have many strengths, especially being nimble and flexible, so the ports sector as a whole stands ready to meet challenges. As the ports sector is such a competitive one, I must remain neutral in that commercial arena, so I hope my hon. Friend will understand if I do not sing the praises of Peel Ports or of any other individual port operator at the expense of others.

Many other hon. Members will doubtless be quick to point out that they have equally alert and vigorous ports in their constituencies, which I know to be true as I have had the privilege of seeing several in operation at first hand.

I want to make it clear—I thought I made it clear in my speech—that I was using Sheerness as an example only because it is in my constituency and I know a lot about it, but the case could apply to many other ports. We should point out to those who are filled with doom and gloom about what will happen post-Brexit that we have ports other than Dover. That is all I am trying to say.

My hon. Friend makes an important contribution. He is absolutely right. We must seize the opportunity and recognise that we have many productive and flexible ports up and down our country.

One of the reasons prompting this timely debate is the success of the port of Dover, along with the channel tunnel, which is why any sizeable proportionate reduction in their traffic would be so challenging to replace elsewhere. My hon. Friend talked about the level of traffic and freight going through the port of Dover, and he also referred to the port of Felixstowe. That remains the largest UK container port and is another example of a world-class port capable of accommodating today’s ultra-large container vessels. Its sister port, Harwich, is a versatile ro-ro facility that handles both accompanied and unaccompanied ro-ro trailers. Also, Associated British Ports has advertised the strengths of its Humber ports for unaccompanied ro-ro and is also investing in short sea container capability at Immingham. Those are just a few examples. The Government are involving the whole UK ports industry in discussions on resilience issues directly and through the UK Major Ports Group and British Ports Association. Nevertheless, the initiative of Sheerness in promoting its ro-ro facilities is a good example of an enterprising and positive transport sector.

My hon. Friend will have heard from Ministers that we are confident of securing a withdrawal deal with the European Union that is in the interests of both the UK and the EU member states as trading partners, for this is not a zero-sum game. All the participants in international trade stand to gain, and that applies as much to the UK’s ro-ro business with the EU 27 after we leave as it does to our trade with the rest of the world, so we expect an agreement and a transition period that will enable a sensible adaptation to the inevitable technical changes in border arrangements. However, as a responsible Government, we must plan for all eventualities.

There has been a great deal of speculation, especially in the past week, about the Government’s intentions in the event of a no-deal outcome. The Government have made it clear that UK border controls—those that we control—will continue to enable trade to flow as frictionlessly as possible, which is what we are working towards.

I am sorry to interrupt again. I accept everything the Minister says, but, because the Calais-Dover route is so short, it does not lend itself to electronic trans-shipments at the moment, so we have to upgrade those facilities. My understanding is that the software used at Felixstowe could be changed to accommodate Dover. When asked how long it would take, someone said a few minutes, and we should explore such options.

Once again my hon. Friend makes a positive intervention on how our ports can continue to be flexible and take on board new technology to ensure that all the checks are made in good time, especially when we consider the very short journeys to Dover.

Certain checks and controls, including those already undertaken from time to time on EU goods, have to take place at the frontier to be effective, and that will continue to be the case. But there is much that we can and will do to expedite flow, especially where checks can be undertaken away from the physical frontier. We cannot control what controls the EU will require or what member states will do in response to those requirements in the event that we leave without a deal. We can seek to influence such things, of course, but ultimately there remains a risk that the flow of traffic will be affected.

The Dover strait, encompassing the channel tunnel, concentrates the greater part of accompanied HGV trade with the continent. It is a 24/7 operation that includes a stream of ferries departing at half-hourly intervals. Inevitably, such a dense flow of HGVs could become subject to some constriction in the event that prolonged checks feed back into the queue of arriving vessels. We would be failing in our duty to the public if we did not take such possibilities very seriously and prepare for all eventualities.

On the opportunities proposed at Sheerness, earlier this year Peel Ports issued its pamphlet, “Brexit unlocked—A Contingency Option Using Uncongested Ports”. That report highlighted the ability of ports that are geared up to welcome and handle unaccompanied trailers to provide a service to customers whose cargo is not perishable or otherwise necessarily quick to the market. That can have further benefits, allowing a little more time to clear border controls in either direction and within commercially agreeable bounds to use temporary storage on ports rather than increase stockholding in the customer’s onsite warehouse or distribution centre.

Of course, unaccompanied cargo is nothing new. Indeed, the pamphlet itself points out that more than 70% of unit-load traffic from ports in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands already travels unaccompanied, whether in trailers or sea containers. Equally, of course, Dover and the tunnel will remain open for business whatever the outcome on borders, and along with the ferry operators will themselves continue to attract a powerful commercial pull through geography as well as customer service, especially on the more time-critical traffic, although not limited to that. It is not my job to pick winners or direct traffic. Decentralised decision making by traders who are best placed to weigh their own needs and time pressures will continue to do that. However, it is my and my Department’s job to consider all reasonably possible outcomes and pursue the overarching objective for traffic to be as frictionless as possible. That is what we have been doing and will continue to do. I am glad that port, ferry and rail operators are also engaging with those challenges.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of traffic management. My Department, Highways England and other partners are working closely with the Kent Resilience Forum and other partners to develop contingency plans that will replace Operation Stack. First, we have established the Dover TAP—traffic assessment protocol—which has successfully avoided the need to deploy Stack since 2015. That will continue and Operation Stack will be superseded by Operation Brock, which will ensure that the M20 can be kept open and that traffic will continue to flow in both directions at times of cross-channel disruption from whatever cause.

Operation Brock consists of three phases: a contraflow queuing system between junctions 8 and 9 of the M20, with holding areas at Manston airport and, if necessary, on the M26. This represents a significant improvement on previous deployments of Operation Stack when junctions were closed and traffic diverted off the M20 on to local roads, adversely affecting local communities and businesses in Kent. We will therefore have substantial truck-holding capacity while maintaining flow of traffic on the M20. Obviously, we hope that none of that will be needed, but I hope my hon. Friend will be reassured that the Department and the agency are working hard to cover all eventualities and improve the quality of our collective response.

Although we have been talking about the implications of Brexit, I said at the beginning that we have to solve the problem whether or not we have a no-deal scenario. It is bad for Kent and for the country. Whether or not we have Operation Stack, we need more lorry parks. Every constituency in Kent suffers from all its lay-bys being cluttered with lorries. Lorries are parked on the M2 every night. We have to do something about that. I have been working with Kent County Council and Highways England, and I have offered sites in my constituency for lorry parks, but nothing ever happens. I hope that the Minister can encourage something to happen on that.

My hon. Friend again raises the important issue of lorry parks. We know we need more, but no Member would like them in their constituency. I value his contribution, and I will ensure that his passion for ensuring that we have lorry parks is passed on to the Roads Minister.

I know that the A249 is important to my hon. Friend. Road connections are vital to any ro-ro port, and indeed to most others. Our port connectivity study, published just last April, surveyed the situation in England nationally. It acknowledged that there is a good case for strengthening sections of the strategic road network and specific potential to upgrade sections of the A249 near Sheerness. The study is a platform for future investment in worthwhile improvements at a range of ports including Sheerness, but of course the port is open for business with its existing connectivity. I would welcome another meeting with my hon. Friend to try to take that forward, especially with the Roads Minister.

I am sorry to intervene yet again. The A249 and the link I mentioned into the port are important. I mentioned it to the Secretary of State a year ago, and he instructed Highways England to go down and have a look at it. The response from Highways England was that it is not necessary because it is not busy enough. Highways England does not seem to understand that we will make it busier only if we get the road link in. That is where it is sadly not always singing from the same hymn sheet as the Department for Transport.

I hope Highways England will acknowledge my hon. Friend’s intervention. Our port connectivity study made it clear that that part of the A249 requires investment to ensure that our ports continue to do what they do best, which is not only bringing freight in but moving it up and down the country.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising an important topic. He has rightly highlighted the potential of an important port business in his constituency, as well as of other significant businesses up and down the country. I am sure that he and I agree that it is part of a wider picture of readiness to seize commercial opportunities across the UK ports sector. I look forward to working with him in flying the flag for UK ports. I have no doubt that you will agree, Mr Bone, that the UK was a great maritime trading power for many years before we joined the European Union, and we will continue to be a great maritime nation after Brexit.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.