About £450 million of taxpayers’ money has been put into facilities to handle post-Brexit checks. The checks are now delayed.
Near the container terminal at Portsmouth International Port, only a few hundred metres from the water’s edge, sits a new hi-tech border control post.
Set up over the last 18 months at £25 million – a cost-shared by the port’s owner, Portsmouth city council, and the taxpayer – the high-specification facility should be in its first week of use, handling post-Brexit checks on imports of forestry, plants, and animal products coming from the European Union.
The facility sits empty and silent, however, following the government’s decision in April to postpone, perhaps for good, the introduction of physical inspections of fresh fruit, vegetables, plants, and meat from the EU. The building was finished ahead of the government’s previous and much-delayed commencement date of July 1 for the new border measures.
In that context, the government is currently working on a new operating style for imports – expected to be announced in the autumn and take effect at the end of next year – following the declaration by the Brexit opportunities minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, at the end of April that all paperwork and checks at the border would be digitized.
The decision has left ports such as Portsmouth calculating the cost and thinking about what to do with their remarkable but unessential multimillion-pound white elephants.
The British Ports Association (BPA), a lobby group for the industry, determines that at least £450m of taxpayers’ money has been spent on these now mostly redundant new border control facilities.
This includes the £200m government fund for buildings at ports, along with an approximated £250m spent by the government on building 10 inland border facilities, Holyhead and Dover where there is no space for a checkpoint near the terminal. These buildings will be hard to repurpose.
Mike Sellers, director of Portsmouth International Port, stated:
“It is designed specifically for government inspections, nothing else. The cheapest option would be to demolish it. It’s taking up two acres of operational land; we are not blessed with lots of land so it’s a big problem for us in terms of operations.”
The port would have made money from the border control post by imposing charges on importers for the goods checks. Under the grant fund agreement reached with the government, Sellers said the port was currently unable to utilize the facility for further commercial purposes.
Even if this was approved, it would be time-consuming and expensive to reorganize for another use.
Portsmouth, together with 40 other ports, obtained £200 million in funding for the new control posts through the government’s port infrastructure fund. However, this was limited, causing the ports themselves to pay approximately £100M to offset the shortfall.
Portsmouth, the UK’s second-busiest cross-Channel port, asked for £32 million of funding and was given £17.1m. It later altered its plans to minimize the cost, but Portsmouth City Council got a loan to cover the £7.8m shortfall.
Gerald Vernon-Jackson, the leader of the council, said it “has been left to foot the government’s bill” and is facing loan and interest repayments at a time of extended budgets.
“The most serious issue is the phenomenal cost the council has had to absorb. We have no way of recovering the costs and no offer of financial support from the government.”
The port calculates it will cost £1m every year to keep the facility in operation, even in a delayed state. Built to handle “high risk” products such as plants and trees, as well as meat, Portsmouth’s facility has 14 lorry bays, as well as air-lock quarantine zones and sterile areas, developed to hinder any cross-contamination between different categories of goods.
Roughly seventy workers, including port operatives, vets, and health staff, were supposed to work at the facility, inspecting goods 365 days a year, together with officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency. Port health officers had already been hired.
When reporters visited on Tuesday, workers were placing the final paving stones outside the facility. Inside, the freezers – which would have been used to preserve meat products during the inspection process – were being tested and running at a chilly -20C (-4F) degrees.
The Labor MP for Portsmouth South, Stephen Morgan, has written to Rees-Mogg to show his concern about the public money splashed out on the construction of border control facilities that may not be essential. Rees-Mogg said in response that the government would assist the port to “identify ways of minimizing such costs, or recouping costs, if possible”.
Reports emerged stating that government officials visited Portsmouth’s facility recently, while ministers are seeking other possible uses for the border facilities. Portsmouth city council is requesting ministers to refund it for the initial funding shortfall and provide them with clarity on whether the border control posts will ever be needed.
When the government published its turnaround over the introduction of import checks, Rees-Mogg said it was to prevent putting extra costs on British consumers and businesses during a cost of living crisis.
Richard Ballantyne, the BPA’s chief executive, stated:
“The decision to postpone and reshape sanitary and phytosanitary controls is probably the right one for the freight industry and the economy. But from the port operator point of view, this has come two years too late.”