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A week is a long time in politics. Just not when it’s London International Shipping Week

The industry can be forgiven for expecting a little love from the government. There are few signs it even gets noticed

Britain’s schools are crumbling. So is UK maritime policy

THIS time two years ago, the great and the good of UK maritime ushered members of parliament aboard a Thames river cruise in the hope of showcasing the industry’s importance to the wider British economy.

Sadly, the 2021 London International Shipping Week canape campaign was undermined by a crucial vote that required every available Conservative MP to be on hand that day to stave off a potential rebellion.

To allow the politicians a quick exit to vote at short notice, the boat was ordered to sail in small circles around Westminster Bridge.

That’s the perfect floating metaphor for British politics right now, and as the UK shipping industry once again prepares to open its doors to LISW, guests can expect a similarly distracted display from a government increasingly focused on its own survival.

Ministers will be out in force next week, but their hands will be full of champagne flutes and empty of any significant policies.

The Clean Maritime Plan, initially expected by summer 2023, is not going to appear in any LISW speeches. Indeed, the closer we get to the next election, the less likely it is to appear at all.

That is a concern. The long-awaited revision of the UK’s maritime decarbonisation strategy is vital if we are to move ahead with the broad brush intentions first aired by the government back in 2019.

The Maritime 2050 strategy was billed as “radical” by then transport secretary Chris Grayling when it was launched in 2018. The truth is that it has always lacked punch, and sadly seems to have been back-burnered by the three transport secretaries serving under three prime ministers that we have had since then.

Back in March the government was urged by the House of Commons transport select committee to get a move on.

The committee charged that the government was unable to distinguish between action and aspiration, and urged ministers to cut through the “muddled” list of almost 200 recommendations underpinning its Maritime 2050 strategy and set out some binding goals.

That includes specific targets for the UK Ship Register. While UKSR deserves the credit due one of the world’s best-performing flags, it has seen vessel numbers drop by a third between 2009 and 2021, with much of the outflux occurring after the decision to leave the European Union.

And then there’s the ports policy. The government has been repeatedly urged to reconsider its current approach, which places a growing regulatory burden on port authorities, in seeming contradiction to standard Tory rhetoric on the need to cut red tape.

A top-level international showcase such as London International Shipping Week should have spurred ministers and policy makers into addressing industry concerns. Sorry to say, LISW attendees should prepare to be underwhelmed. 

Part of this reflects wider political torpor. With a general election likely next year, the government is not exactly pursuing a policy-rich agenda. The impression is given of a tired administration trailing in the polls and content to tread water.

Either the embattled Rishi Sunak beats the odds and secures a mandate, or Labour wins and sets its own agenda; either way there’s going to be little substantive movement until someone takes back control, to coin a phrase.

There will be some bold chat, some tentative asks from industry about Emissions Trading System exemptions and shoreside power and training supports, and everyone will be desperately hoping that nobody mentions P&O Ferries or Brexit. But everyone knows this is all largely a case of going through the motions.

The UK Chamber of Shipping will press ahead regardless and remind the international audience, as will any stray attendees from Westminster, of the 61,000 jobs created directly by the shipping sector. The trouble is, that’s fewer than the number of voters in a typical single constituency.

Shipping also underpins a further 585,000 jobs in the wider supply chain and economy. Its Heineken effect is not confined to traditional maritime areas, many of which are struggling.

It includes landlocked regions such as the West Midlands, which sees more than 10,000 jobs and £86m of economic benefit linked to shipping. Again, the trouble is that few beneficiaries will be aware of it.

No doubt CoS will reiterate that, even absent the revision of the Clean Maritime Plan, shipping will be hiring lots of the highly skilled engineers who will be needed to maintain new generation engines powered by low- and zero-carbon fuels.

Sadly, shipping is a perennial political Cinderella. With attention focused on the jerry-built reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete schools and hospitals hastily flung up, which is just the latest crisis, there will be little bandwidth left over for industry concerns.

Ministers will nod earnestly, make pledges to redouble efforts and then get back to real politics until after the next election, when the cycle will start again.

Lest we be accused of partisanship, there is not the slightest indication that any of the opposition parties are particularly bothered either. We’d love for the Labour Party to tell us their shipping policies, but they have yet to let the country know their policies on anything else either.

To rewrite an aphorism from 1960s’ prime minister Harold Wilson, a week is a long time in politics. Just not London International Shipping Week.

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