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New container ships: Big fish, little port?

However , the planning constraints on UK ports that could stop them expanding to host the ships have led industry to question whether Britain could be sidelined from major freight routes if the vessels, and others like them, become standard.

Only Felixstowe can currently take the new ships in its new berths, which it is currently testing for opening later this year.

Maersk has Felixstowe on its indicative route which operates between Asia and Europe, calling at nine ports between Shanghai in China and Felixstowe in 20 days.

The spectre of such giant ships ruling the waves poses questions for other UK ports and for the government as it prepares to publish its National Policy Statement on ports later this year.

A spokesman for the shipping line said that there are only around 20 ports in the world deep enough and with the crane capacity to handle the new ships’ 59m width.

Freight Transport Association head of global supply chain policy Christopher Snelling expresses concern that if these new vessels become the industry standard, other UK ports will want to expand so they can take them.

If this doesn’t happen, he adds, there is the possibility of smaller British ports becoming drop off points, or feeders, from European ports, including Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Bremerhaven in Germany, all planned to be stops for these new large vessels.

Planning challenge

Ensuring that the planning system is responsive to any expansion attempts is where the challenge to government lies.

Ports are privately owned and funded by large global operators. “If you want to upgrade ports for these ships then you need a better planning system as the money [for upgrades] comes for global funds, they can go anywhere,” Snelling says.

The two examples of UK ports with expansion plans that are next in line to consider taking the ships are Southampton and the London Gateway development. Both are at least part-owned by DP World, a company run by the Dubai government’s investment fund.

“Ports seem to have a problem getting planning permission, it’s a long complicated process that puts off, before they even get permission or not. It’s not necessarily that the process gives the wrong decision, but it takes too long to get there,” Snelling said.

London Gateway says it will be able to take the ships when it opens, but planning permission for that facility was only given five years after a public inquiry.

Economic impact

Failure to accommodate larger ships would leave less developed UK ports having to rely on feeder arrangements with larger hubs on the Continent – something which would have a restrictive effect on the UK economy.

He adds that it would be “devastating” if the UK lost its “port of call” status due to lack of facilities.

“Economically it would be better if British ports operated with all the ships in current use but it depends how common these ships become. There’s nothing wrong with the feeder services from Europe, they are very good, but it speeds things up and you have more back up options if you’re served directly,” he said.

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