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British ports say they are not ready for Brexit customs checks

Joanna Partridge in Portsmouth
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

A string of British ports are urging the government to delay the next wave of Brexit red tape, saying that border checkposts will not be ready for the July deadline, while inland customs facilities being built are also behind schedule.

With the Brexit minister, Lord Frost, reportedly considering reviewing plans for full customs checks on all imported goods, pressure is building on ministers to push back their deadlines, and set out measures for scaling back controls.

Exports into the EU from the UK have been subject to controls since 1 January, but the British government decided to delay import controls until the summer to give traders time to prepare. From 1 July, however, ministers expect checks to take place at more than 30 designated border control posts (BCPs), where goods, plants and animals entering from the EU by sea, rail or air can be inspected.

“It’s obvious not all of the facilities are going to be ready; how much of it will be is still up for debate,” said Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the trade body British Ports Association (BPA). “Our frustration with government is they are not willing to share what the plan B is.”

With less than four months to go, construction has only just begun at ports including Portsmouth, Purfleet on Thames in Essex, and Killingholme on the Humber.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) is warning that livestock trades could grind to a halt, because no Channel port is planning facilities to check incoming farm animals.

And the location of some inland border checkpoints – such as Holyhead on Anglesey and in south-west Wales to serve the ports of Fishguard and Pembroke – has not even been announced yet, while the Kent site named White Cliffs, where goods arriving at Dover will be inspected, is described as a “muddy field”.

Next to Portsmouth’s container docks, works on the control post are underway, but it is far from ready. The 4,500-metre-square site still resembles a car park, and is half-covered in paving stones. A digger is preparing the ground before the building’s foundations can be laid.

The port’s owner, Portsmouth city council, says its contractors expect the facility to be constructed by mid-August, when it will have to be certified by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), as well as the Animal and Plant Health Agency, a process which could take several more weeks.

Port operators say the delay is partly the result of complications with the government’s funding process for these multimillion-pound infrastructure projects.

Graphic

A £200m taxpayer funded Port Infrastructure Fund was oversubscribed, leading the government to impose a 34% haircut on the grants provided to Portsmouth and 40 other successful applicants.

Portsmouth applied for £32m in funding, but only received £17.1m, leaving the publicly owned port with a significant shortfall, meaning it has had to scrap plans for a live animal inspection post.

The port, which contributes £8m a year to the UK economy, is a main point of entry into the UK for racehorses, and in total, 60,000 breeding animals, including pigs, sheep and cattle, enter and exit the UK through Portsmouth each year.

With other Channel ports unwilling to invest in the facilities, the NFU is warning that the livestock breeding business could grind to a halt.

Mike Sellers, director at Portsmouth Port.
Mike Sellers, director at Portsmouth Port. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

“If we hadn’t had our funding cut, we would have been able to accelerate the project and I am pretty confident we would have achieved it,” said the director of Portsmouth International Port, Mike Sellers.

Border control posts might resemble industrial units or distribution warehouses from the outside, but the interior must be biosecure, so that inspection of live animals, meat and plants can take place without risk of contamination, with vets on hand to carry out the controls. They must also provide space for HGVs to park, all of which makes them costly and complex to construct.

In places where there isn’t space for a checkpoint next to the terminal, such as Dover and Holyhead, the government has taken on responsibility for building 10 inland border facilities, or is working jointly with devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland.

Several of these facilities are far from finished and unlikely to be ready for July, and ports have written to ministers to warn them. The Guardian understands that government departments including the Cabinet Office, Department for Transport and Defra have been warned of delays.

“Even if they aren’t willing to extend beyond July, or publicly say that, they must have alternative plans, and ministers and officials are being told this on a weekly basis,” says Ballantyne. The British Ports Association is calling on the government to share its contingency plans.

The Welsh government said an announcement was expected shortly on the two BCPs in Wales, but added that “a consultation and planning process” would precede the start of construction.

A government spokesperson said it is “making significant preparations to ensure [ports] will be ready for staged introduction of border controls”, adding that it was working closely with ports which have received funding.

Not everyone is behind. Southampton, Plymouth, Hull and Immingham, operated by the company Associated British Ports (ABP), are all expected to be ready on time.

Given delays elsewhere, the government has several options of how to proceed,: for example, checks on goods currently take place at their destination, and this could continue. But this is not considered a permanent solution, as it could leave the UK border open to fraud and smuggling.

Port operators are concerned about what would happen if vehicles would only be stopped at ports with finished facilities.

“It would be unfair from a competition point of view,” said Ballantyne. “Hauliers and freight owners would seek the path of least resistance and use those routes”.

Such action could distort trade flows, or cause overcrowding and delays at ports that do have completed customs posts.

“The context for this discussion is to ensure that supermarket shelves remain stocked, and that the fresh food on which the UK relies continues to reach those shelves,” said Tim Reardon, head of EU exit at Port of Dover. “Infrastructure doesn’t flex, therefore the process must.”