They’ve been around for as long as ships sailed from them in whatever form that originally took: from the sandy beaches of the Aegean probably before Helen took a shine to a stranger and long before the purported 3,000,000 tons of rocks were deposited below sea level to create the current Port of Dover. Without ports the world doesn’t go round if you’re a ship owner and certainly not if you are in charge of a container line.

Recently the European Sea Ports Organisation (ESPO) has been talking about the role of ports and the challenges they currently face and will certainly encounter in the next decade. Ports have developed from safe harbours, embarkation and landing docks to modern Smart Ports some with portcentric operations sometimes covering five times the space of the actual quays and maritime functions. The trouble is, to ensure future growth in a changing economic environment, the role of the port is changing and who benefits?

Ports have expanded in operations as they have in volume; basic infrastructure attracts investment and generates growth but the effects can be felt far outside the actual port and its operations. Environmental and local economic issues now come into play and suddenly the portcentric operations and the onward supply chains are cast in a whole new light. What this can mean is that some ports find themselves victims of their own success in attracting trade but having then to cope with the logistical operations needed to maintain that increase.

The Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) recognises ports as engines for growth and many European ports have projects that can meet the requirements with the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) as the funding instrument for the trans-European networks (TEN) in transport. But here’s the real conundrum: who benefits from port development? At their meeting at the end of April ESPO led a coalition of 40 European associations representing every aspect of transport, calling on the European Commission to step up funding for transport in its budget to be announced for 2021-27. The siren call was for greater investment in ports and ESPO suggested that in the past four years, only 4% of the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) funding, the funding system to help complete the European Commission’s TEN-T network has gone to ports. With 90% of global trade travelling by water, maybe the priorities need a little revision.

Consider the figures: an ESPO study apparently produced the staggering figure of €48 billion needed for port infrastructure development between 2018 and 2027. That figure comes with concerns about environmental impacts, digitisation; new infrastructure impacts on local communities, political concerns and even down to the need for more personnel – as in more HGV drivers, a current nightmare for the road haulage industry. But the development of larger ships is also a cause for concern – the flexibility and infrastructure to accommodate such vessels present not only financial challenges to European ports but also in terms of operational capabilities; look at how the barge congestion issues are affecting the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp for evidence of this. The call is for bigger berths, bigger cranes and deeper channels, despite the fact that existing ports have limitations on growth. It is here that smarter thinking is needed: greater flexibility in handling cargo is easy to say. The hard bit is in developing the infrastructure to handle the ideal.

The limits to growth for inland ports are evident: noise and pollution override expansion plans but current developments for inland ports have highlighted the need for speed and access to markets. This is just one of a whole series of considerations that the sector is coming to terms with. Strong growth at European ports is projected mainly due to container traffic. The real success story will be when investment matches the ambitions and the demands of an increasingly avaricious consumer base and respects the concerns of the wider environment.

Mike Godfrey
Author: Mike Godfrey