Shifting trends in international trade and a strong domestic economy buoying up the leisure boating market are just two of the factors contributing to the current diversity of work in UK ports and harbours. The maritime sector is going through a dynamic phase and poses some of the most absorbing design and construction challenges in civil engineering.
In the far north, major investment by the Scottish Executive is revitalising the transport infrastructure between Orkney, Shetland and mainland Scotland. In Burry, North Wales, modernisation of a small harbour is contributing to the regeneration project of an area until recently blighted by post-industrial decay.
At the opposite extreme, huge developments proposed for Dibden Bay at Southampton, the Thames Estuary and Bathside Bay, Felixstowe, aim to meet the intense demand for container port capacity. Container trade is expected to quadruple in the UK by 2020.
While Burry and Orkney pose engineering challenges, Dibden demonstrate the real problems encountered as Britain's already stretched container port infrastructure expands.
'The driving issue is the application of the European Union Habitats Directive. There is now a realisation that assessment of port projects in the UK needs to be done in a more rigorous manner than before to demonstrate that there is an overwhelming public need for a development, ' says ICE maritime board chair and Arup maritime business leader Greg Haigh.
Port developments, often situated in environmentally sensitive areas, must now make an overwhelmingly strong commercial and economic case and satisfy strict environmental criteria if they are to go ahead. Environmental opposition can sink a project. Where in the past, environmental opponents had to prove their case against a port, now the burden of proof has shifted to developers which must demonstrate compliance with the Habitats Directive.
Rather than being seen as a barrier, however, new legislation such as the Habitats Directive and the Port Marine Safety Code should be seen as an opportunity to improve performance through application of state of the art technology, argues Ian Cruickshank, principal engineer and project manager at hydraulic research organisation HR Wallingford.
'Harwich and Felixstowe ports have successfully implemented a major channel deepening project in compliance with the Habitats Directive. We used cutting edge sediment transport modelling to assess and mitigate the impacts of the channel deepening as part of the environmental assessment undertaken by Posford Haskoning Environment, ' says Cruickshank.
The Port Marine Safety Code requires port operators to undertake a series of risk assessments on their activities. 'We enable port owners to assess and mitigate their operational risks through the use of full bridge real time navigation simulation and other computational techniques, ' adds Cruickshank.
Though South East Asian port operators lead the world in terms of port productivity, the UK port sector measures up well against European and US counterparts. What capacity is there is being used to the full, the government recently concluded.
Yet, there is no national or government strategy for port development. The port sector is almost entirely privatised and even those in the public sector, owned by local authorities, act independently of each other, in effect like private ports.
Satisfying demand for a huge fourfold increase in container port capacity over the next 20 years will have to be developer led, taking place on a case by case basis.
As with Associated British Ports' Dibden Bay development proposal, approval hangs on the outcome of lengthy and costly public inquiries and a decision by the Environment Secretary.
Haigh questions the value and cost of such processes and whether the government's proposed overhaul of the planning system will improve the situation. If they are really needed, new port developments will have to go ahead, he argues. The question is whether they will get the green light fast enough to prevent shipping operators taking their trade to continental competitors.
Public inquiry is 'not a sound method of strategic planning for port development, and is not good for the private sector, nor stakeholders such as employees, English Nature or environmentalists. No-one could put their hand on their heart and say this is the right way to do it, ' says Haigh.