Market Overview

The UK economy is the fourth largest in the world. Its ports play a vital role by handling over 95% of UK import and export tonnage – in 2010 the value of trade through British ports was around £340 billion. Ports also have an important role to play supporting employment in their hinterlands and in their local and regional economies.

BPA’s membership comprises all port types. Operations range across ferries, containers, oil, leisure, fishing, bulk goods and general cargo. The scale and diversity of port operations is impressive: in 2010, UK ports handled more than 500 million tonnes of freight and saw over 67 million passenger journeys.

The UK port sector is focussed heavily on container and ro-ro traffic, though passenger travel and the petroleum industry play a substantial part too. More than 250m tonnes of oil products and liquefied natural gas moved through UK ports in 2010. Dry bulk cargoes have grown by around 40% since 1990, due principally to an increase in the amount of imported coal.

The UK oil industry continues to do well and whilst the quantity of crude oil being moved around Britain has reduced, there has been a 12% increase in the volume of petroleum products transported since 1990. Whilst, in basic terms, the majority of port and shipping activity is concentrated in the South East of England, a significant amount takes place elsewhere.

UK ports are among the most efficient and competitive in the world. Unlike many other countries, UK ports are not state funded or managed. The abolition of the National Ports Council in the early 1980s, labour deregulation, the option to privatise and strategic independence from government have all made major contributions to the industry’s strength and vitality. A recent government study found that ports directly employed around 73,500 people. This, together with induced employment estimates at up to 47,000 is another indication of the vitality and importance of the port industry to the UK economy.


Ro-Ro goods vehicle movements have generally increased by some 240% since 1985. The fastest period of this growth was between 1985 and 2000, particularly in SE of England and in the Irish Sea, however growth in other UK regions has been slight.

Passenger traffic is in many ways a sub-set of the ro-ro market. Most passengers travel with vehicles and use the same ferries as lorries. Sea passenger levels decreased in the mid-1990s. The Channel Tunnel, low-cost airlines and loss of Duty Free waver reduced sea passenger movements but in recent years the sector has stabilised and is again growing healthily.

Bulk Cargoes

Liquid bulk has a mixed story to tell. The quantity of crude oil being moved through UK ports has reduced between 1999 and 2009 from 186 to 168.4 million tones. This fall reflects trends in oil production in the North Sea.

There has been a 12% increase in the quantity of oil products and LNG travelling to or from UK ports, and this trend is likely to continue as more LNG terminals come on stream in the next decade.

Dry Bulk cargoes, such as ores, coal and agricultural products, have increased by around 44% between 1999 and 2009. Coal has seen a particular resurgence as a cargo, although the UK is still predominately a net importer. In 2009 133m tonnes of Dry Bulk products went through British ports, 67% was imported.

Container Traffic

The container sector of the ports industry often grabs the biggest headlines and most attention on the national stage. Container traffic has grown by 190% since 1988 and whilst the rate of growth looks set to slow it is likely to remain strong, particularly as shifts in global trade continue and manufacturing industries become ever more firmly established in the Far East. In 2010 in the UK container traffic represented 11 per cent of traffic at ports.

Other Activities

In addition to its traditional cargo and passenger handling roles, the port industry offers a range of other services, supplying the offshore energy industry and maintaining ferry links to island communities. Some provide auction markets for the fishing industry whereas others are specialists in the fast growing leisure and recreation fields. A particular growth area in recent years has been the cruise liner trade. There are many ports now providing excellent facilities around the country as the tourist market grows.

Ports can make a contribution to solving national transport problems. Increasing congestion and environmental damage caused by land modes can be reduced by using the sea option. To promote the maritime sector, the BPA supports the work of Freight by Water, an organisation dedicated to the promotion of short sea and coastal shipping. Sea and Water is part of a network of short sea promotion centres throughout the EU.

Ports are often at the heart of their communities. Whatever their size, they are major providers of employment within their areas, and through leisure activities such as yachting, many contribute to local economies in other ways. Many of the BPA’s members are Trust or Municipal ports, and their governance structures are often rooted in the representation of local interests and concerns.

The BPA is committed to promoting the viability of the Trust and Municipal models, and was heavily involved in the production of both Modernising Trust Ports 1 and 2 and the Municipal Ports Review. Their vitality is essential for preserving a healthy mix of port types- a mix unique in Europe.