Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by NUMAST (P 17)



  NUMAST welcomes the Transport Sub-committee's decision to conduct an inquiry into UK ports policy. For an island nation, depending on ships and the sea for the carriage of more than 95 per cent of its international trade, the importance of having safe, effective, technologically advanced ports playing an integral role in a truly integrated transport policy cannot be understated.

  It is fair to say that ports and related policy issues have suffered some considerable neglect in recent decades. The publication in December 2000 of Modern Ports policy paper is a welcome, but long overdue, attempt to define new objectives and new standards.

  NUMAST believes, therefore, that it is both timely and appropriate that the Sub-committee has decided to inquire into whether the policy proposals are adequate to overcome some of the difficulties and problems that presently affect safety and efficiency in UK ports.

1.  What contribution such ports make to the economy of the United Kingdom

  Efficient and economic port movements are essential to the rapid and effective movement of both freight and passengers in and out of the UK. At a time when national, European and international transport policies are having an increasingly marked influence upon the UK's maritime infrastructure, NUMAST believes that the role of shipping could be enhanced through improvements at ports and in related infrastructure, therefore providing additional economic and environmental benefits.

  Whilst the Modern Ports policy document states that "it is not government's job to run the ports industry", there are crucial issues to be addressed on how ports can be operated in the public (regional and national) interest, with strategic and planned investment and development.


  There can be no doubt that ports play an inherent role in the economic and strategic well-being of the UK. Despite the opening of the Channel Tunnel, more than 95 per cent (by weight) of the UK's international trade is still carried by sea and some 22 per cent of goods moved within the UK in 1999 went by water transport. In addition, there were almost 32 million international sea passenger journeys through UK ports in 1999 and 38.5 million passengers carried on domestic ferry journeys.

  The crucial role of UK ports is certain to continue well into the 21st century. World seaborne trade has increased for the past 15 consecutive years, and looks set to remain on an upwards trend for the foreseeable future. Ships remain unmatched as a means of transporting large volumes of cargo, and passengers, at relatively low cost and with relatively little damage to the environment. In addition, new ships types and technology are raising the prospects of maritime transport being able to take a greater share of cargoes currently carried by airfreight or by road.

  As the most recent UNCTAD review of maritime transport points out, pressure is being exerted to reduce port costs and to provide services for a new generation of "mega-vessels". These factors are accelerating the development of transhipment hubs and feeder ports—all of which require substantial investment in infrastructure and extremely efficient intermodal connections.

  The need for attention to be paid to the performance of UK ports and their position within an integrated transport policy is all the more urgent given the way in which other European countries are developing initiatives in this area. UK ports could become relatively uncompetitive and "user-unfriendly" if they fail to match the pace of change elsewhere in Europe, particularly at a time of increased globalisation and consolidation within maritime markets. As an island nation, our import and export costs could rise significantly were the UK to become marginalized as trends towards new shipping alliances and globalised freighting strategies see the emergence of new port patterns. Reliance on transhipment and feeder services would reduce economies of scale and add to the volume of HGV traffic.

  It is therefore essential that clear policies and objectives are in place for ensuring that the UK remains a key player in these broader regional and international developments. The expansion of the existing Freight Facilities Grant Scheme to provide more support to innovative projects to encourage more freight to be carried by shipping should be a central platform of such an approach. Clear national targets should be in place to identify and develop the ports and associated infrastructure that will be required to keep pace with changing trading patterns and operating practices.

  NUMAST is concerned that the recent sale of the south coast port of Newhaven to French interests is an indication of the greater emphasis placed by other governments on the importance of ports and waterborne transport. As we write this evidence, there are reports that Boulogne's Chamber of Commerce is considering a similar bid for the port of Folkestone. The regional authorities in France appear to have a strong desire to re-launch or preserve closed or threatened ferry services, and recognise the employment and economic benefits that can flow from such interventions. Similarly, the work now underway in the port of Amsterdam for a new "indented berth" containership terminal, capable of handling up to 300 container moves an hour, is just one example of the scale of the competitive pressures facing the UK.

  Similarly, issues such as light dues and port charges—which could act as an inhibitor upon the development of coastal shipping and related environmental benefits, for instance—cannot be excluded from a consideration of broader national policy issues.

  There are strong arguments to support the case that such charges should be fully inclusive (to cover the costs of handling and disposing of ships' waste, for example, to discourage the dumping of waste at sea) or possibly restructured in a way in which all "users" pay for the benefits they receive. The possibility of the UK being classified as a "single port" in respect of light dues could bring benefits to "multi-users" (such as coastal shipping). In any event, these charges must be seen in the context of other European ports benefiting from state funding or alternative arrangements that may put UK ports at a competitive disadvantage.

2.  What problems and opportunities currently face such ports, particularly with respect to co-operation with each other, safety, the environment, and regulation?

  The Modern Ports document notes the deregulation that has affected the UK ports industry over the past two decades. NUMAST is concerned at the impact this has had, most notably in terms of safety. We are particularly disturbed that these trends have come at a time when increasing ship size and sophistication, as well as a growing volume of hazardous and potentially environmentally devastating cargoes, have emphasised the need for an ingrained safety culture and defined safety management systems and procedures, supported by state of the art technology. Advances in shipboard systems and electronics, for example, are now creating unprecedented opportunities to develop vessel traffic services—yet significant investment is required in shoreside infrastructure and training, and in a highly cost-competitive environment such expenditure may be questioned.

  The statistics show that docks and harbour areas are extremely dangerous, with an injuries rate four times higher than the all-industry average and even higher than deep coal mining. The need for ships and seafarers to have reliable and efficient safety support systems is emphasised by the fact that navigation in port and harbour areas is inherently dangerous, with busy traffic, shallow waters and restricted manoeuvring space all creating potential problems. This is underlined by an international study and suggested that 90 per cent of shipping accidents occur in restricted or pilotage waters. The cutbacks in crewing levels and the overall reduction in the standards of foreign shipping using UK waters add to the need for high standard shoreside vessel traffic support and pilotage systems.

  With no evidence that accident rates are falling, urgent action is needed. NUMAST believes that many port and harbour authorities are failing to ensure an adequate level of safety—not only for dock workers, but also for crew members transiting between the ship and the dock entrance. We believe that excessive competitive pressures, combined with a lack of adequate resources and the unwillingness of senior managers to adopt a "safety culture" lie behind these statistics.

  While new technologies and containerisation have led to significant automation of cargo handling, there are considerable grounds for concern over the safety of such operations. As an illustration of the hazards that can be generated, it should be noted that in 1998 the International Maritime Organisation issued a circular to member states on the subject of the safety of container securing operations after a number of fatal accidents to crew and dock workers during securing and unsecuring work. In addition, the European Commission consultations on sea ports and maritime infrastructure have underlined the need for a harmonised approach to prevent unfair competition from a lack of uniform application of safety and environmental rules. In this connection, NUMAST would urge the Committee to examine the International Transport Workers' Federation proposal for the production of health and safety manuals for national port industries, containing guidelines on the implementation of IMO and ILO Conventions through national legislation and regulation.


  The use of contract labour has exacerbated the situation, even through there is a clear need to ensure that dock workers are properly trained. In addition, the British Port Industry Training Board is dominated by the employers. Ideally, its structure should be balanced and tripartite, with a fair composition of employer and employee representatives and educationalists and trainers.

  NUMAST believes the ports industry has not devoted sufficient investment in training and that it will suffer profoundly over the next few decades unless urgent action is taken to address the problems posed by the growing shortage of skilled and experienced UK seafarers. Maritime experience and knowledge is essential for a wide range of safety critical positions, including vessel traffic services, pilotage, harbour masters and ship surveying and inspection. At present, UK officer cadet training is barely one-third the level agreed necessary to meet future seagoing and shore-based demand and the international shortage of officers is forecast to grow to at least 46,000 by 2010. There is therefore a defined need for shore-based employers to "invest" in the seagoing skills they require to discharge their responsibilities for safe and efficient port operations—particularly at a time when there is a growing emphasis on the development of shore-based support services for shipping operations. Ports need to make a contribution to the national maritime skills pool—either through involvement in the sponsorship of cadets through the SMarT training scheme, or through the Maritime Training Trust.


  NUMAST has welcomed and provided practical support to the development of the UK's new Port Marine Safety Code and we hope this will result in significant improvements. The Sea Empress disaster in 1996 highlighted profound and fundamental problems in safety in port areas—many of which could be linked to the deregulatory pressures of the 1980s and the fragmented and decentralised nature of UK port operations.

  The Code sets positive targets for the development of greater accountability and transparency within port and harbour safety systems, not least through the introduction of requirements for the publication and review of risk management policies.

  The introduction of new national occupational standards—most notably in the area of pilotage—should help to address some of the shortcomings identified by the Sea Empress disaster. NUMAST has long been concerned that large users may exert economic pressures on ports and the issue of Pilotage Exemption Certificates was one example of the potential for such problems to develop—particularly when there was some evidence to suggest that such certificates had been issued to people with insufficient experience and/or inadequate English language skills.

  Whilst the Code is therefore very welcome, NUMAST is keen to stress to the Transport Committee its concern about the need to ensure adequate resources are in place to deliver its laudable objectives. Without clear and effective enforcement and policing procedures, backed up by the necessary staffing and resources, NUMAST is concerned that the aims may not be met. Valid questions may already be raised over the enforcement and implementation of oil spill contingency plans, and the Port Marine Safety Code represents an additionally high workload responsibility for the relevant authorities.

  The mechanisms of Port State Control are an example of the need to provide proper back-up to the Port Marine Safety Code. With overwhelming evidence of serious safety problems on a significant proportion of the foreign shipping using UK waters (around 70 per cent of ships found to have defects and around 7 per cent being found to be unseaworthy), effective measures for enforcing international standards are essential. Such ships are a threat not only to themselves, but also to their crew and to the safety of other ships and to port facilities and infrastructure. NUMAST is concerned at the pressures that have affected the UK port state control inspectorate, with a long period in which overall staffing and resources for this vital work being cut back.

  Similarly, NUMAST is also concerned at the need to reinforce the role of the port health inspectorate. Conditions on board many of the ships visiting UK ports are intolerable, with cases of rodent and cockroach infestation, unsanitary or unhygienic facilities and inadequate food and water provisions. There is also an increasing problem posed by ships that have been abandoned by their owners, often leaving the crew with no pay, provisions or other resources. NUMAST believes it is essential that such problems are addressed by having a fully staffed and resourced inspectorate with responsibilities for ensuring the enforcement of international standards for shipboard conditions. It is also important for ports to consider the nature of the facilities provided for visiting seafarers. With port turnaround times cut dramatically in recent decades (from an average of more than 138 hours in 1970 to just under 16 hours in 1998), it is imperative that seafarers are given easy access to welfare services, communications and recreational facilities whilst in port. This is of particular importance in that many ports are now in areas well removed from centres of population and lack public transport connections. Addressing the welfare of seafarers can have a significant impact upon their morale and well-being, and therefore upon motivation and safety.

  NUMAST is also concerned that where port safety committees do exist, seafarers—perhaps one of the most important "users" of ports—are rarely, if ever, represented.

  Effective port security is also of growing importance to NUMAST and its members, at a time of increasing numbers of stowaways and illegal immigration, as well as armed robberies on merchant shipping and seafarers. Such incidents need to be taken seriously by port authorities and effective measures such as fencing, lighting, and screening of containers and cargoes must be implemented. In addition, attention should be paid to the complex arrangements presently governing port security, which is presently the responsibility of agencies including the DETR, HM Customs & Excise, Immigration, the Special Branch, the MCA, police and private security guards. This can create ineffective security and inconsistencies in liaison and operational practices around the country.

3.  Whether the proposals contained in the government's document Modern Ports: A UK Policy are adequate to address the difficulties and opportunities faced by such ports; and

4.  Whether other policies should be pursued to benefit such ports.

  The Modern Ports document clearly indicates the scale of the task facing the government in reversing many years of neglect and in defining policies that will create safe, efficient and economic port operations at the heart of a broader integrated transport policy.

  The situation facing UK ports at the start of the 21st century is one shaped by complex international political, strategic and commercial factors. Given the far-reaching trends affecting port development, it is essential that any UK policy assessment identifies how the nation will respond to the development of "mega ports" and hubs as global shipping alliances and new shipping technology create new international trading patterns.

  It is clear that significant work must be undertaken to ensure that UK ports are part of a truly integrated transport infrastructure. Intermodal links need to be dramatically overhauled and road and rail connections to leading ports should be fundamentally reassessed. The report's repeated emphasis on the devolved nature of ports and port operations should not be used as an excuse for failing to develop and maintain a broader strategic plan for the development of UK ports and their facilities in a national and international context. There needs to be a recognition of the inter-connection between various policies and initiatives—for example, the potential impact on UK maritime skills and employment of using foreign shipping for new services, such as the proposed link between Scotland and Europe.

  There is no doubt that shipping can deliver substantial environmental benefits, but there is a need for further support—notably through the Freight Facilities Grant and greater involvement by UK ports in the Trans-European Network scheme.

  Port related charges and funding needs to be examined thoroughly, as these are factors that can have significant impact upon competition and investment.

  Training and skill requirements need to be defined and developed, with ports being encouraged to participate in the SMarT scheme to ensure the flow of seagoing expertise to port-related positions. Without a contribution from the ports to developing the pool of maritime experience, there is a very real danger that skill shortages will adversely affect their ability to provide essential safety services.

  Whilst the development and introduction of the Port Marine Safety Code is welcomed by NUMAST, we believe serious consideration should be given to ensuring that there are sufficient resources and staffing to enforce its provisions and to continue to develop and enhance the port state control regime within UK ports.

  Other issues that need to be addressed in greater depth include port security, the composition of the port industry training board and of port safety committees, the deployment of resources and staffing to port health inspections.


  Efficient port operations are essential to the economic and strategic well-being of the nation.

  The role of ports will remain undiminished in its importance, as national and international seaborne trade continues to grow.

  The UK needs to have defined policies for the development of its ports and associated infrastructure to ensure they remain internationally and regionally competitive and keep pace with changing technological and trading patters.

  Funding issues affecting port safety and environmental services need to be considered further.

  There is considerable scope for improving the safety record of UK ports.

  Training issues need to be addressed urgently to ensure the continued supply of skilled and experienced personnel for port operations.

  Adequate resources must be provided to ensure the effective implementation and enforcement of safety initiatives in UK ports.

  Further support should be given by the government to ensure maximum environmental benefits are realised through the full integration of UK ports and shipping services within the national transport infrastructure.

January 2001

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