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‘Things can only get better…’ Ports survey reflects mood of tentative optimism for 2021

The BPA has today published the results of a survey of UK ports to illuminate the issues they are facing at present and their view of the year ahead.

The BPA has today published the results of a survey of UK ports to illuminate the issues they are facing at present and their view of the year ahead.

The two-thirds of ports said they felt ‘somewhat confident’ about the business outlook for 2021. A third said they felt ‘not so confident’.

When asked to summarise their outlook for 2021 in one word or sentence, the word most commonly mentioned by respondents was ‘challenge’, followed by ‘uncertain’, with other responses featuring the word ‘difficult’. Some said 2021 would bring more challenges than 2020.

Many others, though, were optimistic, with the words ‘positive’, ‘hope’ and ‘opportunity’ also frequently mentioned. One port said ‘things can only get better…’

These sentiments come after a tough year for ports. 87% report that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted negatively on their customer activity.

Regarding ports’ top concerns and issues for the year ahead, in order, they were; customer activity, the overall status of the economy, operational challenges posed by the pandemic, Brexit, and decreased revenue.

Commenting, Phoebe Warneford-Thomson, Policy Manager and Economic Analyst, at the British Ports Association said:

“In most senses, the results from this survey were as expected, following the unimaginable and unprecedented challenges posed by 2020. The majority of ports stated that there had been negative impacts on their customer activity, which came at great cost to port businesses. Although not impacting all ports, Brexit changes are another great unknown.

However, it is welcome to see some hope for what 2021 will bring. While there were some mixed views over whether the woes of 2020 will continue; two-thirds of respondents said they felt ‘somewhat confident’ about the business outlook for their port in 2021 and overall ports reflected a mood of tentative positivity.

When asked to summarise their expectations for 2021 in just a few words, optimism did shine through. The most common word was challenge, but also popular was hope, opportunity and positivity.

Indeed, this year will not be without its challenges, with continued disruption to the fishing industry and trade between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland, and the staggered implementation of border controls continuing until June. However, 2021 should be a year of real opportunity too; as we hope to see the initial recovery to the economy post-COVID and have the chance to shape several key Government policies, including Freeports.”

The survey was conducted amongst the BPA’s membership which includes over 400 ports, harbours and terminals, who collectively facilitate 86% of UK’s shipping trade, all the UK’s maritime passenger volumes as well as providing vital hubs for the energy, fishing and marine recreational industries.

Other key results from the survey are;

  • Ports were largely neutral regarding their view of the economic climate for the next 12 months. A quarter of ports felt positive and a quarter of respondents held a negative view.
  • Over three-quarters of respondents stated that their revenue had fallen since this time last year.
  • The overwhelming majority of ports reported that COVID-19 negatively impacted on their customer activity in 2020, with 87% of respondents opting for a negative option (equally split between a ‘substantial’ and a ‘minor’ negative impact).
  • Regarding the cost of COVID-19 to port businesses, a third reported a cost of £0-99k and a third reported a cost of £100-499k. One-fifth of respondents reported a loss of £1-10m. Naturally, responses to this question were approximately correlated to the size of the port.
  • Most ports were not hiring above their usual levels this coming quarter, with just under three-quarters identifying that they were not, with just over a quarter responding that they were.
  • Ports were broadly evenly split regarding whether their port is investing in new business services, property, or infrastructure in the coming quarter. 31% reported that they are investing substantially, 26% reported a moderate amount, 24% stated a small amount, 19% stated they were not investing at all.

Each year UK ports collectively handle almost 500m tonnes of freight. They employ around 115,000 people and have kept the country supplied during the coronavirus pandemic.