Ports and National Transport Infrastructure Presentation

Ports and National Transport Infrastructure Conference

Presentation by David Whitehead (BPA

At the 8th Annual: UK Ports Conference - 24 May 2016

The vital link between national transport infrastructure and ports – What next?

Ports are first and foremost part of transport network – even if you are operating a leisure port, the users have to get there somehow.  There are proven links between transport investment and economic growth.  This underlined Rod Eddington’s now largely forgotten report into transport and economy published in 2006. 

The UK has a mature and generally good transport network.  A look at comparative journey times going back 10 or 20 years shows the improvements that have been made.  And because it is a mature network, and with the exception of big projects such as HS2, there is less scope to introduce very dramatic overnight improvements.  Eddington’s conclusion was that there is a greater need to focus on capacity and performance issues, looking at producing benefits rather than concentrating on absolute amounts of investment.  Solving the problems of pinch points, whether it’s road congestion or crowded commuter trains, can produce very significant value for money improvements.

Pressures and demands vary and are complex, but there is a clear link between the health of the transport network and the ability of ports to deliver.

The World Economy Forum recently updated its annual report on the quality of port infrastructure.  The report is based on the views of business executives for each country on the capacity, efficiency and costs of their country’s port facilities.  Within the EU, the UK comes 5th equal with Spain.  The pecking order is 1st The Netherlands, 2nd Belgium, 3rd Finland, 4th Denmark, and then the UK.  I believe there are two reasons for this, one we cannot do anything about, and another we do something about.  The one we cannot do much about is rival the sheer magnetic pull of Continental ports such as Rotterdam and Antwerp.  Rotterdam handles roughly 380m tonnes a year, whereas the largest UK port handles about 60m tonnes.  The economies of scale that these very large ports create present a formidable competitive challenge. 

The thing we can do something about is the quality of our transport network.  It is sobering to look at the scale of investment in the motorway networks comparing the UK with the two dominating economies in the EU, France and Germany.  The number of motorway miles constructed in France and Germany since 2000 is 850 and 680 miles respectively.  The figure for the UK is 46 miles.  France has a motorway network of 7000 miles, Germany 8000 miles and the UK 2300.  Admittedly France and Germany are bigger, but not that much bigger, and the density indicator for traffic on UK motorways is 113 with the equivalent figures in Germany and France of 39 and 47.  These are big and significant disparities.  It is not hard to see why we have congested roads.

Next, some figures on the quality of the road network which were produced by the Institute of Civil Engineers in their 2014 State of the Nation report.  The strategic network for the UK received a B grade, which means “adequate for now”, and the local network received a D - grade, which means at risk.  There is a significant disparity between the strategic network and local road networks and this imbalance is another particular feature of the UK.  If you want to go on a journey from A to B, you do not think I will be ok most of the way, you want to get from A to B. 

Over the next 5 years Highways England funding is set to double, which is fine, but in comparison local government funding has been cut year on year since 2010 and in spite of a modest increase in local highways maintenance in 2015, the future looks bleak.  To compound this, the local road network is in a far worst state of repair than the strategic network and this leads to higher vehicle operating costs. 

A related issue is resilience.  Examples of the effects of rain and storm damage in the recent past include the closure of the A591 in Cumbria for 4 months, requiring £40m to repair damage and costing £1m a day to the local economy; the collapse of the rail line to the South West at Dawlish which was out of action for 2 months cost £35m to repair and cost the South West economy £1.2bn; and the collapse of the rail line between Folkestone and Dover in 2015 which will take a year to repair and cost £44m.  All in all that is a total of £119m additional costs from three separate incidents. 

The way in which funding is allocated and its governance also create new and challenging issues.  There is an increasing range of organisations with varying responsibilities, including LEPs, the Northern Powerhouse, Transport for the North, Local Government Growth deals, Combined Authorities, City deals, the Office of Road and Rail and the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).  Many of these organisations have been promoted by the Treasury rather than by the Department for Transport and it is interesting that the NIC in particular seems to be starting from a Treasury policy perspective rather than from a necessarily transport perspective.  Nor is it truly national, as the NIC is about England only.  So it will need to find its place acting alongside the devolved administrations with their own transport planning programmes and budgets.

So a few conclusions. 

The UK is a not particularly big country but has a complex governance structure for delivering transport schemes.

There needs to be more balance between the resources available to the motorway and trunk road networks and the local networks, covering the entire A to B journey.

The growing effects of storm damage and resilience issues have to be factored in for future planning and spending. 

And, the big question facing us is how we engage as the ports industry with the DfT, the NIC and all the other players.  We need to create a new forum championing the needs of the freight industry and which has a formal status, involving all sides of the freight industry, with access to Ministers and decision makers on a regular basis.