With Christmas just around the corner, the UK’s ports are groaning: many are starting to experience delays and chaos is ensuing. Along with the usual Christmas demand, there are a number of extra pressures on the system, including pre-Brexit order and PPE stockpiling. Meanwhile, the Ports industry – its small group of owners, chief customers and hinterland – are focused on preparing and submitting bids for ‘freeports’ or associated schemes.  

The Thatcher-driven 1980’s port privatisation transferred this vital infrastructure into the private sector. Over time, this most basic and vital infrastructure has been run by a smaller and smaller number of private entrepreneurs and owning companies.  As is natural when using the same old model of ownership, they have focussed heavily on the use of the assets, in order to drive efficiency and profit. Within ports, efficiency is king: it is the difference between a ship stopping at your port or not.

However, the privatised model has also developed a UK ports sector which has focussed so much on profit maximisation that it has created a fine balance between optimal operations and a system ill-equipped to deal with anything other than business as usual. This is a common experience across our economy within services and infrastructure. It is the business model which drives this fine balance, as it returns maximum yield.  

The Government are using the freeports agenda to seek to shore up our ports and supply chains, aimed at holding on to important companies like Nissan and Ford. The port owners, who will be part of the freeports, will feel they can benefit from reduced or non-existent business rates, capital injections and fuller ports. However, into the future, a discussion has to take place about taking back control of our basic infrastructure. Beyond the European-wide port liberalisation agenda and rules on state aid, new models of port ownership can be explored. 

Multi-stakeholder co-operatives would be a model which would lend itself well to the nature of the industry and their national and regional importance. Indeed, the only non-privatised ports in the country (Trust Ports) are run not for private profit, with multi stakeholder governance models. For our country to be more resilient and able to roll with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we must widen ownership and develop diverse forms of ownership across the economy – and that should not exclude the UK ports.