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Opinion Privatised ports a hindrance to economic development

KENNY MacASKILL argues that ports are a local community assets and as such should be governed by corresponding municipalities or even nationalised

FREEPORTS are rightly in the public eye but what about port ownership? That has had much less publicity but is often equally insidious.

Freeports are of course a shameful tax dodge, undermining workers’ rights and distorting our economy. They’re also a licence for organised crime.

As a former justice secretary, I previously chaired the Scottish Anti-illicit Trade Group, an amalgam of public and private organisations to address illicit and counterfeit trade.

Contacts from law enforcement, including the City of London police who lead on economic crime, were in despair at the open door for illegal goods brought about by this latest Tory wheeze and Forth Ports straddling five ports sited along 45 miles on both sides of the Firth of Forth had them simply shaking their heads.

Ownership though has received far less publicity but is equally harming our communities and restricting our economy. Of course, some ports remain locally owned and are both democratically accountable and thriving. That’s how it should be for a vital part of national infrastructure and what is standard in Europe.

But port privatisation in the ‘90s, as with the sell-off of other state or local assets, has seen control shift whether to corporate interests or even abroad. Local, never mind national, say has been lost, along with the interests of the community, let alone the country.

Yet ports are not just fundamental to an island nation with numerous islands and archipelagos, they’re essential for the economic development of the newfound riches of offshore renewables as well as the maintenance of essential existing industries. 

Let’s look at Forth Ports and Clyde Ports as the former stands to be vital for the offshore renewables sector being located on the North Sea and the latter’s essential for the retention, never mind expansion, of ship building on the Clyde.

They both have significant say and not just in the wellbeing of the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow but of other towns along the great rivers which they straddle.

Forth Ports are not just Leith, the port of Edinburgh, but Grangemouth, Scotland’s principal container port, Methil, Rosyth, Burntisland and now even Dundee on the River Tay.

Clydeport owns not just Glasgow but Greenock, Hunterston and Ardrossan. So, their influence is pivotal for so many and so much on and offshore.

But vox pop a local as to who owns them, and you’ll probably be told the local council or maybe the Scottish government. Even my wife, an Edinburgh lass, thought so.

But most will be as shocked, as she was, to be told that Forth Ports is now owned by the Public Sector Investment Board, a Canadian Crown Corporation looking after the pension investments of many Canadian workers. 

Now I’m the last person to begrudge workers a good pension in their retirement. But I baulk at a pension fund for whoever being in charge of what’s a vital local and national asset. They seek a safe return whereas the latter requires some vision and economic dynamism. 

Worsening that perverse position is what other ports are owned and operated by Forth Ports. For the major port in their portfolio is Tilbury on the Thames. It’s also by far the most important investment dealing with almost double the tonnage of every Scottish port combined. 

Similarly, the London International Cruise Terminal may explain why there’s a lack of investment in a link for them at Leith or elsewhere on the Forth.

In my naivety I did once ask a senior Forth Ports official whether they would invest in one at Leith, to which he replied it was for the government to fund. In my ignorance I said I thought a clue might have been in their name. But no.

Privatisation of the Forth Ports Authority was supposed to be about boosting investment, developing dynamism and promoting competition. None of that has applied here.

Ownership is from abroad and direction is towards the interests of an entirely different locality. How can it be in the interests of the development of the ports on Forth to be run by an organisation whose principal interest is one on an entirely different estuary?

The transformation of ports from commercial harbours to property development as upmarket flats transform them has seen some get very rich while the principal purpose of shipping seems forgotten; and even communities left to languish. Much of the Forth testifies to that.

It’s the same on the other side of the country. Clyde Port Authority is no more but who are Clydeport? They’re owned by Peel Ports PLC, one of the largest property investment companies in the UK and based in Manchester.

The major shareholder is John Whittaker, a billionaire who lives on the Isle of Man, perhaps for an emotional attachment to the island rather than tax reasons but who would I be to know.

As with the situation across on the other side of Scotland’s central belt the situation’s worsened by what other ports and interests are owned and operated.

As well as Heysham, Great Yarmouth and London Medway the major port in terms of tonnage is the Mersey. Almost four times as much going from the Mersey as from the Clyde and even Medway leaves the latter trailing. 

Where’s the commercial imperative to boost the Clyde when your west coast port in Liverpool is sitting pretty?

Worsening that there’s also Peel Ports’ ownership of Cammell Laird shipyard. Fergusons yard, the last one remaining on the Lower Clyde, is threatened by closure as orders dry up and expansion has been restricted.

Peel Ports, having opposed the development of the company into a neighbouring dock, preferring to see it leased as a breakers yard. Yet where’s the high value contacts and well-paid jobs, breaking or building? Damaging Fergusons and shipbuilding on the lower Clyde but offering protection for other yards in competition and sited elsewhere.

Privatisation of public infrastructure has undermined workers, community and even the nation’s rights. That was supposed to be offset by the boosting of the supposed entrepreneurial spirit and creation of competition.

But that hasn’t been the case, indeed this would suggest the opposite. It’s why countries in Europe keep their ports national or municipal.

Even Ireland, which has seen a post-Brexit surge in ferry and freight links to Europe as opposed to Scotland’s sole service which remains sunk, sees Dublin Harbour owned by the state.

I was even told of the situation in the US where the attempt of Canadian interests to buy into a major US port was given short shrift and warned off.

Even in the home of free market capitalism the need to have state or local control of ports and harbours is accepted as gospel. 

Only in UK PLC is it seen as a good thing to live on an island and have your ports controlled by others whose interest may well not be yours, let alone your communities’.

It’s not just Freeports which need challenged, ports must be municipal if not national. 

Kenny MacAskill is Alba Party member of Parliament for East Lothian.

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