Welsh ports are running out of time to prepare for Brexit — they need answers now

  • The UK will leave the EU's trading rules when the Brexit transition period ends in two weeks' time.
  • Trade deal or no trade deal, this will mean significant changes for businesses across the UK.
  • While Dover rightly receives a lot of attention, Welsh ports are set to be heavily-affected by Brexit and need more help to be fully prepared for 2021, Conservative MP Stephen Crabb writes for Business Insider.
  • Holyhead, Fishguard, and Pembroke Dock still don't know where new infrastructure for carrying out Brexit checks will be built, writes the chair of the UK Parliament's Welsh Affairs Select Committee.
  • Holyhead is the UK's second biggest roll-on, roll-off port after Dover and is a vital route for traders using the "land bridge" connecting the Republic of Ireland with the rest of the EU.
  • Traders could look to other routes — like the new direct service from Republic of Ireland to France — if there is significant disruption at Welsh ports, Crabb warns.
  • The Conservative MP writes that there will be a "nervous few months for Welsh ports, the ferry operators and hauliers" as they await information from the government.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

With just two weeks until the end of the Brexit transition period, and negotiators still grappling over the draft text of a free trade deal, Britain's new relationship with the European Union remains unclear. 

But whether a deal is signed or not, the UK's departure from the Single Market and Customs Unions means that significant change in the way goods and agricultural products are traded with the EU is a certainty.

This has yet to sink in for many businesses which is why the Government has stepped up its communication efforts ahead of 31 December with a blunt "Time is Running Out" message. New customs procedures and controls, along with additional safety and regulatory checks, will be required at the UK-EU border and phased-in over the next six months.

Concerns over potential delay and disruption to trade have overwhelmingly focussed on the port of Dover, reflecting the enormous importance of the cross-Channel corridor to UK manufacturing and retail.

But, come January 1, the UK will have another frontier with the EU in the form of the sea border between Wales and the Republic of Ireland.

Between them, the ports of Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke Dock handle more than half a million lorries and trailers a year crossing between Great Britain and Ireland, with Holyhead now the second largest RORO (roll on, roll off) port in the UK after Dover. Like Dover, it has precious little space to build new border facilities and relies on the smooth flow of traffic through and away from the port as quickly as possible. Similar challenges exist at Stena's other Welsh port, Fishguard.

A large proportion of the freight moving between Wales and the Republic is agricultural and food products which will be subject to the most stringent checks.

A recent report from the Welsh Affairs Committee warned that the necessary systems and infrastructure may not be ready in time for the full implementation of the new border checks. For all three ports, there is still no confirmation of where even the new checking facilities will be located, let alone any planning consents granted.

Getting these inland facilities up and running by 1 July will be incredibly challenging, made more complicated by the fact that UK and Welsh Governments share responsibility for the project. UK ministers are leading on the facility for Holyhead and Welsh ministers are responsible for the infrastructure serving Fishguard and Pembroke Dock.

Holyhead port.PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

The Committee also raised questions about the readiness of the IT systems needed to support the new Border Operating Model. This is another area where Government has noticeably increased the pace of its activity in recent months as concern has increased. HMRC estimates that up to 270 million customs declarations will need to be processed after the end of the transition, compared with 55 million currently.

Meanwhile, under the Government's own reasonable worst-case assumptions, between 40% and 70% of laden lorries travelling to the EU may not be ready for EU customs requirements. This raises the prospect of delays and disruption to the smooth flow of trade.

The Welsh ports, especially Holyhead, are critical elements in the "land bridge" connecting the Republic of Ireland with the continent. This is overwhelmingly the preferred route for transcontinental hauliers moving product in and out of Ireland. But they have options. A new direct ferry service between Rosslare and Dunkerque has been launched, to supplement existing direct services, with much of the publicity around it emphasising that it is "Brexit-proof." None of the Welsh ports can afford to lose trade.

All this makes for a nervous few months for Welsh ports, the ferry operators and hauliers. Ministers remain upbeat that all the necessary pieces will be in place in time for all the relevant deadlines. But with changes like this, the pieces do not fall into place by themselves. Ministers will need a sharp eye for detail and an unrelenting focus if the Wales-Ireland border is to be ready for the full implementation of Brexit.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.

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