Ports are essential to our economy, says Sebastien Kurzel, and the Government needs to do more to invest in these vital lifelines for our coastal communities.

As the Government moves forward with its post-Brexit trading strategy, formulating deals with partners such as Japan and Australia, it is essential that British ports form the core of their plan. The maritime sector facilitates 95 per cent of all UK trade and is a huge contributor to the Exchequer, and of jobs to the UK labour market. However, the dual impact of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit has understandably hit British ports hard. There has been a great deal of emphasis put on the importance of British maritime trade in recent years, and this needs to continue. We cannot allow our coastal communities to fall by the wayside as time goes on.

British shipping hubs are something of a barometer for the overall health of the economy, so it is no surprise that overall trade passing through them fell over the past year, which saw imports and exports fall by £16.7 billion and £14.9 billion respectively. The good news is that things are picking up once again and in May 2021, British exports to the EU were at their highest since October 2019.

The Government puts this relatively small disruption in port trade down to the £800m invested in border jobs, technology and infrastructure, but if we want to see our ports flourish, even more investment is needed. The head of the Port of Dover – Britain's largest – suggests that we could see trade disrupted once again if a significant number of British holidaymakers were to travel to Europe this summer with customs staff already strained.

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Freeports were a welcome addition to the eight cities in the UK that were granted them, but the policy has come under fire for a number of reasons. The intention was to boost trade, investment and create jobs, but the scheme has been criticised for potentially undermining tax authorities and increasing criminal activity. The true outcome remains to be seen, but the Government needs to be careful not to neglect its non-freeport shipping areas.

Instead, they need to extend some of the low-cost, pro-investment measures that they have granted to the British freeports to ports more widely. Otherwise, we could see these areas power ahead economically, while other major shipping locations in the country fall behind. Ports like Bristol, whose owners have invested £650 million into over the past 30 years, need to see similar levels of public investment post-Brexit.

We have already seen accusations from the Scottish and Welsh governments that the implementation of freeports threatens devolution, coupled with concerns that they will not see the same level of investment as English locations. The Government needs to ensure that what should be a boon for UK trade does not break down into a political row.

While there has been talk of increasing connectivity through infrastructure upgrades recently, such as with the proposed scheme for a bridge or tunnel between Ireland and Great Britain, announcements like this appear more like stunts as opposed to actual tenable projects. Government investment would be much better placed in upgrading infrastructure we already have, as opposed to on complex, unmanageable schemes such as this one. Public money should be spent on more border control staff, as well as improved transport and warehouse infrastructure, rather than chasing pipe dreams.

If the UK government neglects investment in its coastal communities in the coming years, it will do so at its own peril. These ports are a lifeline for towns and cities across the country, many of which are in so-called 'left-behind' communities. If the Government is truly committed to its levelling up agenda, it must put British ports at the heart of its post-Brexit trade strategy.

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