The UK is inextricably tied to the seas that surround it, both historically and economically. Standing on British soil it is not possible to be any further than 70km from the nearest coastline. It was this close affinity with the sea that saw Britannia rule the waves, and put Britain at the forefront of the world’s global powers.
But our maritime story is not just a thing of the past. Today half a trillion pounds worth of goods pass through our ports each year, some 95% of Britain’s trade is carried by ship through our ports while some of the most dynamic innovation in the world is occurring within this sector, including autonomy and low-carbon technologies. Whatever trade deal is struck with Europe after Brexit, the maritime sector will remain front and centre in delivering prosperity through trade.
Our coastal communities are at the centre of this sector. However, an ever-widening range of social and economic indicators has put distance between these communities and their inland counterparts. It might seem counter-intuitive to believe that the best way we can achieve ‘global Britain’ is to invest in our coastal communities. But it’s logical and necessary. It’s not solely about government putting its hand in its pockets. Industry can and will do its bit, but there are some things that only government can do, and they should.
That starts with investment in better connectivity. Our existing road and rail connections to our ports are long overdue for improvement and, with the importance of the export supply chain in mind, their development should be considered equally as important––if not more so––as the other major transport infrastructure operations underway in the UK at the moment, such as HS2, CrossRail and the expansion of London’s airports.
Our single most pressing problem in this area is that once you leave the port gate, you find right away that connectivity to the main markets, and to the other ports, is poor: there is not enough capacity on our rail network, most of the motorway network has to operate beyond capacity, and there are too many constrictions on the road network to allow for the efficient transfer of goods.
Whilst we need to deliver that enhanced connectivity, we should also look at the potential to increase the volume of coastal shipping; moving goods on ship around different parts of our coastline.
To make this successful, we need to get the development context right. Many post-industrial coastal communities are crying out for redevelopment, and their proximity to ports and the sea make them uniquely attractive for manufacturing, distribution and as centres for maritime innovation and collaboration.
As well as pro-investment conditions, we need a planning framework that preserves waterfront access for innovation and leisure marine. UK ports will do their bit – they will invest £2bn over the next five years if the planning and development environment is right. Industry is ready to do its bit through a national roll out of regional maritime cluster hubs. These hubs bring industry, academia and local government together to collaborate, foster innovation and drive growth. Many of our coastal communities have the ingredients to transform themselves, but do not yet have access to the kind of focused interconnectivity that engenders dynamic growth. Let’s also recognise that almost all of the UK’s world-beating maritime academic and research assets are in our coastal communities – Strathclyde, Liverpool, Cardiff, Newcastle, Southampton, UEA, to name but a few.
The government expects the ‘Blue economy’ to grow to $3trillion between now and 2030, doubling in value. Our coastal communities are well-placed to drive that growth and benefit from the opportunities that emerge. Maritime Research and Innovation UK, a brand, new arm of Maritime UK is a national initiative for collaborative maritime research and innovation. It brings together many of the UK’s leading research and innovation assets with a growing number of UK companies from across the sector.
That investment in maritime is a smart bet. The maritime sector holds a unique advantage in productivity, 53% higher than the national average. On top of this, the average maritime sector job generated £77,897 in value to the economy in 2015. Compare this to the average job in the UK economy which generated £50,800. That’s a third less. Growing the sector in coastal communities, where productivity and other socio-economic indicators often lag behind the rest of the country, is a valuable mission.
The benefits of effective investment can be seen across thriving coastal hubs in the UK. Take Liverpool for example, with the investment in the Albert Docks or Plymouth and its Oceansgate development, or the Humber’s regeneration through offshore wind. These historic conduits of Britain’s trade with the rest of the world have seen investment in key areas of technology, academia and connectivity that has bought renewed growth and opportunity.
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Open Europe has identified £41bn of untapped potential trade partners for the UK outside of Europe. Our coastal powerhouses sit in a unique position to tap into significant growth opportunities and to benefit from increased trade as well as becoming centres of maritime innovation, manufacturing and leisure marine.
We have an unprecedented opportunity to transform our coastal communities, and industry and government can make it happen by working together.
Sir Bernard Jenkin will be speaking on the Maritime UK panel, Coastal Powerhouse: The Role of Maritime in Driving UK Growth, at The ICC Birmingham on Sunday, 30th September.