Brexit has brought hope to the windswept docks of the Humber River, a key goods gateway in northeast England where tens of millions of pounds are being invested to prepare for a potential increase in shipping.
In Immingham, a gritty town of around 11,000 inhabitants in the shadow of the sprawling port and oil refineries, former dock worker Willie Weir said business was already “picking up”.
Associated British Ports (ABP) – which owns four Humberside facilities – is spending big to attract new business, raising hopes for a return of the area’s former industrial glory.
The company is betting the country’s departure from the EU next March will snarl southeastern hubs like Dover, where limited space and hourly sailings could bump up against post-Brexit bureaucracy, leaving traders looking for alternatives.
“There are certainly some opportunities available for the Humber ports,” ABP’s head of Humber communications Dafydd Williams said during a recent tour of its vast Immingham complex.
The company reckons Humberside can better handle the burdens and delays that Brexit may bring, with space available for new customs facilities and waiting areas for trucks.
It believes the longer shipping routes across the North Sea from Europe will allow new bureaucracy to be done aboard vessels, which is difficult during a 90-minute crossing from Calais to Dover.
ABP has dedicated £50 million ($66 million) to expand its container terminals, spending £14 million last year at Hull, which led to several new European routes.
It now hopes for similar results in Immingham, Britain’s biggest port by tonnage, with investment in loading cranes, tugs and a re-engineered dockside.
‘It’s just economics’
Unifeeder – a shortsea carrier that imports most of its Britain-bound cargo through Immingham – said it is seeing more container customers switching from southern ports.
“The cargo naturally finds the easiest course,” said the company’s UK manager, Andrew Ellis. “It’s just economics.”
Amar Ramudhin, a logistics expert at Hull University Business School, believes leaving the EU creates “big potential” for a shift to the north.
Peter Baker, an industry analyst, said Humber ports offered better value, as they are closer to a raft of distribution centres for firms like Amazon and Ikea.
With more of the journey done at sea, costs, congestion and CO2 emissions all fall, he said.
But Baker said he doubted the Humber ports will be less adversely impacted by Brexit.
“If there are customs checks and port health [checks] and everything else, it’s going to be just as difficult in Immingham as it would be in Dover,” he said.
Andrew Byrne, managing director of DFDS Seaways – Immingham’s biggest shipping line with its own terminal and 35 sailings a week on eight vessels – also called talk of a Dover exodus “misguided”.
He said his company had also seen “no evidence” of a big shift to containers among its customers.
“We’re hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” Byrne said of its Brexit preparations.
Brexit sympathies run high in North East Lincolnshire, the region where Immingham is located.
In the 2016 referendum, 70 per cent voted to leave the EU – one of the highest results in the country and much higher than the overall national result of 52 per cent.
Martin Vickers, a pro-Brexit MP from the ruling Conservatives representing Immingham, wants the government to spur regeneration by giving the region freeport status.
He predicted the area would “without doubt” reap a Brexit dividend.
But across the Humber, staunchly pro-EU Hull MP Karl Turner, who represents the most pro-Brexit constituency the opposition Labour party holds, is sceptical about Brexit benefits.
He predicts Britain leaving the EU next March without any kind of deal would be “an unmitigated disaster for the ports”.
“There’s a bigger risk to the wider economy which I think ABP have not really taken on board,” he said.