Anyone who has followed the news over the past 18 months could be forgiven for thinking that, in our ongoing debate around Brexit, Dover is the only port currently operating within the UK. Its fate, it seems – and by implication, the fate of our other ports – is tied so closely to the outcome of our negotiations that if the right deal isn’t struck, every port in the country will become inert, with roads throughout the UK gridlocked with queues of lorries. Perhaps there’s something symbolic in this focus on Dover, our closest connection to the continent and, for many people, their route of holiday travel to Europe.
But while Dover is an important gateway, there is much more to British ports. According to the Department for Transport, 94 percent of trade and traffic passing through UK ports moves through ports other than Dover. The perceived problems our ports are facing are often overstated, and in some cases unfounded.
This isn’t to say that concerns about ports and Brexit are invalid, however. There is risk involved, though these risks centre on specific forms of traffic: according to the Department for Transport, lorries with drivers going to and from the European Union represented 8 percent of all UK port volumes in 2016, heavily concentrated in Dover. With more than four times as much freight passing between the UK and Northern Ireland via sea routes than over the land border with the Republic of Ireland, a ‘sea border’ would be very disruptive to trade within the UK. And of course there is a wealth of detailed regulation that needs to be disentangled. But ports and logistics companies across the UK are working closely with the Government and its agencies to mitigate these challenges.
In most of our other major ports – including the container-handling ports processing most of our growing trade with China and other Asian countries – there are systems already in place for handling huge volumes of non-EU trade.