UK ports are seeking compensation from the UK government after an 18-month delay in implementing post-Brexit border controls left them with empty high-tech facilities that risk becoming ‘white elephants’ by several million pounds.
Last week’s decision to delay checks on EU animal and plant products until at least the end of 2023 was announced, just as many UK ports were on the verge of completing checkpoints border controls ordered by the government in time for border controls to begin on July 1 this year.
UK Major Ports Group, a trade body for the biggest operators, estimates the industry has spent £100million to build the new border facilities, with a further £200million provided in post-Brexit government grants via the Port Infrastructure Fund.
“It now looks like a waste of time, effort and money to develop what we fear are highly personalized white elephants,” the band said.
Last week Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said the delay – the fourth time ministers have suspended implementation of a full post-Brexit border – would save industry money £1billion and would help control the impending cost of living crisis.
However, in Portsmouth, where the port is owned by local authorities, £24million has been spent on a new border post, including a £7million loan, after the government only provided two-thirds of the cost of constructing the facility.
Portsmouth International Port Manager Mike Sellers said the facility was built on the orders of the Defra agricultural department and staff had already been recruited to run the facility.
“We now face a significant capital liability on a building for which the future is uncertain,” he said. “This has always been raised as a concern of ministers and their officials and we will seek compensation from the government as we seek to recover the costs.”
Stephen Morgan, Labor MP for Portsmouth South, accused the government of wasting public money.
“[The port’s] profits help fund local services and the impact of this unexpected and unfair bill will be felt throughout the city unless the government takes responsibility for its poor planning,” he wrote in a letter. at Rees-Mogg seen by the Financial Times.
Ministers pledged to introduce a new digital border by 2025 to cut bureaucracy and speed up trade flows, sparking fears in industry that border checkpoints will never be fully utilized.
A senior port industry official said the delays now threatened the “worst of all worlds” where ports struggled with expensive infrastructure but reduced levels of controls to recoup their costs, or facilities had to be converted into ordinary warehouses.
“What else are we going to do with new buildings filled with massive refrigerators, medical-grade inspection facilities, and secure communications rooms?” says the executive.
The government has said it will engage with ports individually by May 12 to try to resolve the issues, but port lobby groups have called for an industry-wide solution rather than a a piecemeal approach that would reduce government responsibilities.
Tim Morris, chief executive of the UK Major Ports Group, said the industry urgently wanted to get to the table with ministers.
“While we welcome the offer to engage individually with ports on a limited range of local mitigations, these do not address the most important issues – the recoupment of investments already made and the future of facilities developed” , did he declare.
The Cabinet Office said the government would continue to work closely with ports after its announcement and that the government’s new digital border strategy would reduce costs for businesses and consumers.
“Ports will benefit from streamlined processes and reduced congestion as these checks will no longer take place in July,” a spokesperson added.