Maritime links are important, as shown by the expansion of ferry services from Ireland to the European Continent post-Brexit. Yet whilst Ireland has many, Scotland has none. Not only Brexit, but rising fuel costs and a shortage of drivers make using ships a solution that must be considered.
Yet the future of maritime links is controlled by corporations that neither reflect Scotland’s needs nor can properly represent Scotland’s interests. Before the privatisation of ports by the Tories in 1992, the main harbours on those rivers were operated by Forth Ports Authority and Clyde Port Authority, which were public agencies.
However, following privatisation, ownership moved from the Forth and Clyde. Now, Scotland’s principal harbours on its two major firths are being drowned by ownership from the Thames and Mersey.
Scotland’s ports need investment in infrastructure and jobs so that they can maximise the opportunities for Scotland’s people and businesses to thrive and prosper.
Who Owns Forth Ports?
Since 2018 Forth Ports have been owned by the Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP Investment), a Canadian Crown Corporation looking after the pension investments of many Canadian workers.
What Ports do they Operate?
PSP Investment Board operate the original Forth Port of Grangemouth, Leith, Rosyth, Methil, and Burntisland, along with the Port of Dundee, which the privatised company acquired in 1995. Grangemouth is Scotland’s principal container port.
However, in 1995 they also acquired the Port of Tilbury, which is part of the Port of London located on the Thames. Tilbury is also a major container port with 34 berths.
Consequences of ownership of Scottish ports
Forth Ports no doubt does a good job for Canadian workers and retirees who benefit from it. But how can PSPIB prioritise the interests of Forth Port workers, let alone Scottish social and economic interests, when profits are channelled abroad?
Tilbury port carries more traffic than all the Scottish Ports combined. Even Forth Ports corporate website showed 16 million tonnes of cargo going out of Tilbury and only 9 million from Grangemouth – by far the largest port in Scotland.
How can there be an incentive to improve Scottish freight or ferry links, when your largest and most profitable port is on the Thames? Even the cruise liner turn around hub at Rosyth, which is mentioned on the corporate site, is dwarfed by the London International Cruise Terminal boasted of at Tilbury. Shipping activity on the Thames significantly overshadows that of the Forth Ports.
That is the situation on Scotland’s East Coast but what is the situation on the West Coast?
Who owns Clydeport?
Since 2003, Clydeport has been owned by Peel Ports Group Limited, and its subsidiaries (“the Group”) operate as the Statutory Harbour Authority for the Port of Liverpool, the Manchester Ship Canal, the River Medway, parts of the area along and around the River Clyde, Ardrossan Harbour, Twelve Quays at Birkenhead Docks and Heysham Port. Peel Port is one of the Peel Group’s portfolio investments. Also making part of the portfolio are John Lennon Airport in Liverpool and the Manchester Ship Canal. Peel group also owns Cammell Laird Shipyard and Tranmere Oil Terminal on the Mersey.
Ports operated by Peel Ports
Peel Ports operate the major ports on the River Clyde Glasgow, Greenock and Hunterston, as well as operating Ardrossan.
However, they also own Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, which operates the Port of Liverpool. Not only that, but they also own Heysham, Great Yarmouth and London Medway. The latter of which is described by them as their “flagship port”. In terms of tonnage of freight, the Mersey dominates with 31 million tonnes in and out, with Medway at 9.6 million and the Clyde trailing in at under 7 million tonnes. All according to latest DFT data for 2020.
Peel Ports have also recently leased a dry dock in Port Glasgow for a ship breakers yard. As a result it stifles the potential expansion of Ferguson’s Yard in Port Glasgow. Shipbuilding is highly skilled providing higher paid work. Furthermore, the owners of Clydeport having a vested interest in a shipyard on the Mersey creates a conflict of interest.
All of these show that the interests of the Clyde, as with the Forth, are controlled by those who own and operate ports elsewhere. The interests of a public sector pension board are to ensure a safe investment and reasonable return for members in Canada, whilst Peel Ports appear to safeguard its interests and influence in England. That may mean prioritising land sales or development, not expansion of ports or improvement of maritime links. Revenue returns may also be greater by ensuring the expansion of Tilbury, not the Forth or the Mersey, rather than the Clyde.
Responsibility for ports and harbours has largely been devolved. However, the Scottish Government have followed the UK doctrine of seeing ports as mainly private ventures rather than vital aspects of public infrastructure.
Scotland needs a maritime strategy with a dedicated section or department in government to run, regulate and promote Scotland’s port and maritime interests. Scotland’s ports should be treated as main cargo ports, as is the case with their counterparts elsewhere, with sufficient investment to infrastructure and jobs to bring them up to the same standard as those operating in various locations in the UK and beyond.
Public Port Authorities should be established to oversee and operate Scotland’s principal estuaries, able to regulate charges and consider wider public, not just private monopoly needs.
Consideration should be given to whether there are grounds to seek action by the Competition and Mergers Authority, as well as putting pressure on the owners to ensure that Scottish interests are prioritised, instead of competitor ports south of the border.
If that is not done, and regulation is insufficient, then other options, including the creation of alternative publically-owned Scottish based ports should be considered.