LONDON: At the Port of Tilbury in Essex, as well as at its rival DP World London Gateway further down the River Thames, the scene is one of frictionless international commerce.
It is a model that the operators of the two ports believe can continue after Brexit, even if the UK’s departure from the EU results in a new customs border with the rest of Europe.
The risks to the sector post-Brexit, however, are well known. Currently, 95 per cent of Britain’s international trade is moving via ships, according to the data from the UK Chamber of Shipping. If physical customs checks are introduced following Brexit, it could have a “catastrophic” impact on British ports and shipping, and could result in miles of tail backs at Dover on the Southeast coast of England, the head of the chamber Guy Platten has warned.
“The nightmare scenario is actually having physical customs borders… it would be absolutely a catastrophe for the ports and for our sector,” reports cited Mr Platten as saying. “You’ve suddenly got lorries stacked up, you’ve got sailings cancelled… the whole supply chain is completely affected.”
Dover, Europe’s busiest ferry port, currently handles around 500 non-EU trucks a day and around 8,000 from the EU. The sheer number underlines the UK’s heavy reliance on trade with its EU neighbours.
While few expect movement of goods to be as smooth as it is now after Brexit, some of the port operators are taking proactive steps to ensure they are able to weather the storm.
Tilbury Port – a key shipping hub serving London – is busy putting in place plans for it 152 acre-expansion, a move aimed at enhancing its post-Brexit trade links with Europe.
A new terminal, Tilbury2, will be built adjacent to the existing facilities, creating a new deepwater jetty which will allow more ferries to come and go and increase the port’s capacity by a quarter, according to the plans announced this month.
The addition of a new terminal is central to Tilbury Port’s wider £1 billion (Dh4.94bn) expansion plan. A development consent order has already been submitted, and if approved, the project is expected to be operational by mid-2020, soon after the UK officially leaves the EU.
Charles Hammond, the chief executive of Forth Ports, which owns Tilbury Ports, said the plans would “put Tilbury on the front foot” as the country heads toward Brexit.
“We are working with Border Force and other government agencies to make sure Tilbury2 is fit-for-purpose when the facility opens in 2020,” he said.
Tilbury Port, located on the north shore of River Thames is around 40kms downstream from of London Bridge and its expansion project would go ahead regardless of Brexit, said Mr Hammond. However, competition between the Thames ports has increased since the opening of Tilbury’s rival, DP World London Gateway, which is also situated on the north bank of the river in Thurrock.
The deepwater port, operated by Dubai’s DP World opened in November 2013 and is capable of handling the biggest container ships in the world.
The Brexit vote has so far not affected the DP world’s business strategy in the UK where it operates another port in Southampton.
“Since the vote to leave the European Union, it has been business as usual for DP World in the UK and we don’t see that changing,” Rajeev Shankar, a company spokesman said.
“We are facilitators of global trade, and whether the UK is trading more with Europe, or less with Europe, DP World in the UK, with its fully integrated logistics facility at London Gateway and UK’s most productive container terminal in Southampton, is here to ensure the UK can move goods in and out efficiently, reliably and safely.”
Mr Shankar acknowledged that for some of DP World’s customers, Brexit is a concern and there is uncertainty while businesses wait to see what kind of a trade deal is struck between the UK and the EU.
London Gateway, he said, however is well placed to withstand any potentially adverse impact from the Brexit negotiations.
Meanwhile he said, “We will work with current and new customers to ensure trade is as seamless as possible, whatever the outcome of Brexit.”