DP World sets out global alternative to stop Brexit rot
As part of the UK’s preparations for a chaotic no-deal Brexit, the government ran an exercise last month to assess the level of chaos if trade snarls at the UK’s main gateway for trucks from the European Union.
Operation Brock – which turned a disused airfield into a lorry park for a morning – was preparation for a scenario that could see 100,000 lorries routinely held on roads in southeast England as imports are met with new and more rigorous customs checks at the southern port of Dover.
Dismissing the exercise as the latest instalment of a scare campaign, pro-Brexit campaigners have instead pointed to an alternative vision with the UK at the centre of a ‘Global Britain’ trading network.
One of the country’s largest container ports, run by Dubai-based DP World, believes its modern facilities are already in place for a strategy that embraces that vision of broader trading horizons.
At DP World’s London Gateway, 86 per cent of traffic throughway comes from outside the EU and has connections to more than 110 ports in 60 countries.
The semi-automated deep-sea terminal already has an advanced customs checking system that could provide a model for Britain as it embarks on its uncertain journey outside of the world’s largest trading bloc.
“A lot of Brexit is about expanding trading routes to more countries - deep sea ports do that every day. DP World looks at the long-term,” said James Leeson, DP World’s head of commercial at its UK ports, citing the £1.5 billion pumped into the project by the Dubai-based company.
Amid concerns that goods will be piled up in trucks along the sides of roads in southern England, the company points to its own logistics park, the largest of its kind in Europe, that has spare capacity and is only 20 per cent full.
“You can envisage the government will need things like pharmaceuticals and baby food. We’ve got the capacity to soak up the demand. If there’s a demand we can do it at short notice,” said Mr Leeson.
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Current clients include parcel delivery giant UPS and its London hub, supermarket chain Lidl and multinational telecoms retailer Dixons Carphone.
It emerged this week that the government had pulled out of a £13.8 million contract, one of three that it signed with companies to operate ferry freight services in the event of a no-deal to address potential shortages. The contract with Seaborne was the most controversial as the company had no ships and had never run a ferry service.
Transport secretary Chris Grayling faced calls to resign over the debacle amid criticisms of the government failing to adequately prepare for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit when all of the UK’s trade agreements with the EU disappear overnight.
The government has struck a deal with the EU for a transition period to ensure international trade is kept moving but the deal has failed to secure parliamentary approval.
“What business likes uncertainty? Everyone knows a deal would make life easier – but we’ll keep working. We feel we are prepared whether it’s a deal or no deal given the resources and infrastructure,” said Mr Leeson.
“If you look at many of these goods, they are already coming in from outside the EU. Fundamentally speaking, what’s the problem?”
Opened in 2013 it has three berths capable of taking in 400-metre long, 60-metre wide long ships.
In 2018, the London Gateway dealt with 1.3 million 20-foot containers and has the capacity to deal with 2.4 million. Much of its recent trade has come from South America and connecting the eastern and western hemisphere.
When The National visited London Gateway this week two ships were at the port on the banks of the River Thames less than 30 miles east of London. The Panama-flagged 294-metre MSC Lisa, stacked high with containers heading for the southern tip of Italy was slowly moving from its berth. The port described the vessel as “one of our smaller ones”.
Business leaders and some MPs fear a hard Brexit, where the UK would crash out of the EU without a deal, would result in drastic shortages or bottlenecks at ports.
“We’ve already got the infrastructure and IT resources to handle business. We can do that for other trades if that’s required,” said Mr Leeson.
Much of the port is automated and lorries can pick up a container and leave the site within 35 to 40 minutes, he said.
“It drives out inefficiency. The yard is where a container falls down, not on the shipside. We eliminate the unnecessary moving of containers, which is a waste of time and costs money.”
His positive outlook contrasts with the apathy and frustration of locals in the nearest town of Stanford-le-Hope, two miles away.
Shops are shuttered and the High Street is quiet with few signs of a promised boom in international trade reaching the population of fewer than 30,000.
As politicians bicker in Westminster and Brussels refuses to budge on the stickier points of the government’s rejected deal, ordinary people look on with a sense of disconnection from the political process.
“Every time I think I understand it I don’t, so I’m really not sure,” said Angela Lawson, a 69-year-old, who voted to remain part of the European Union.
The Brexit divide is summed up in the friendship of Alan Turnidge a 71-year-old former gardener, and Sarah Roberts, 48.
Prime Minister Theresa May was doing her best but her negotiating position was handicapped by internal opposition, said Mr Turnidge, who supported remaining in the EU. “She’s got a lot of pressure because, of course both the Conservatives and [opposition] Labour are split right down their parties.”
Mrs Roberts, a hardcore Brexiteer, said: “We should definitely leave, I believe that we should have independence as a country because Brussels has controlled us for so many years.”
Despite the splits within Britain, Mr Leeson feels confident moving forward and believes the DP World brand is critical to this. “There’s quite a high degree of confidence - in uncertain times people look for stability,” he said.