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North of England maritime clusters impeded by poor infrastructure

A London International Shipping Week audience is told that lack of infrastructural investment is holding back economic expansion for maritime clusters in the north of England. BPA chief executive Richard Ballantyne urges northern ports to lobby as a group at Westminster

England’s Northern Powerhouse maritime clusters are struggling to convince the UK government that economic growth needs significant investment in road and rail infrastructure

MARITIME clusters in the north of England have once again used a national forum to express frustration about preferential treatment given to their cousins in the south of the country. The latest occasion was the regional spotlight session at London International Shipping Week. The north has half of the country’s population and half of its traffic yet, claimed P&O Ferries’ head of corporate development, Stephen Weaver, “80% of the infrastructural investment goes to the south”.

Lesley Batchelor, director-general of the UK’s Institute of Export and International Trade, and the session chairperson, gave some context. Her north-south train ride to London took two hours, she said. There was full wi-fi and she suffered no changes of train. If she had wished to travel from Hull on the east coast to Liverpool on the west coast, the journey time would have been almost five hours.

There has been much talk about Britain’s Northern Powerhouse. However, there appears to be little evidence of its emergence. “We are in a crisis,” said Gary Hodgson, strategic projects director at Peel Ports. Port operators have invested in container and bulk cargo terminals “but we can’t move cargo from east to west, either by road or by rail”. He pointed to road haulier Maritime Transport, which operated 1,600 trucks and 27 depots in 2018, generating revenue of £300m; the company is shifting its business to rail with significant investment in both 2018 and 2019.

Partly this reflects Maritime Transport’s serious shortage of long-distance heavy goods vehicle drivers. The average age of drivers is 57. “What chance have they got to recruit drivers?” Mr Hodgson asked. And partly it reflects congestion on the main east-west motorway that delays loaded journeys in both directions.

The two maritime clusters leading the charge — Mersey Maritime and Team Humber Marine Alliance — are heavyweights in industrial shipping yet admit they have struggled to convince either the Department for Transport or the Department for International Trade of their plight.

British Ports Association chief executive officer Richard Ballantyne responded that it was not enough just to criticise the southern ports and clusters. “The north must go to London to lobby. You must get together as a group and lobby on behalf of the region,” he said.

The significance of this discussion at London’s shipping week during the latest in a long series of troubled weeks for the UK government was not lost on the audience. “It’s important for us to pull together in the face of the enormity of what’s going on — and I do not only mean Brexit,” Ms Batchelor urged all the clusters. The northern ports suffered from congested infrastructure that is hampering trade, she added.

It made for a stark contrast to speakers from the South West Marine Cluster, the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership, and even the Scottish Maritime Cluster — all of which focused on economic growth through technology, sustainable development and skills training.

However, all clusters are united in their exasperation about whether the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union will be eased by a deal or not. As of today, that will be decided on October 31.

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