A wave of investment is hitting UK and Irish ports, with fresh produce facilities in particular being upgraded to offer importers, exporters and their customers the optimal climate for their cargo
While the shipping industry has been waiting for at least one announcement of major investment in British ports, like buses, three have come along within a short space of one another.
Ray Facey, commercial manager at Solent Stevedores in Southampton, explains that the Canary Isles Fresh Produce Federation (Fedex) has used the 14,000m2 temperature-controlled warehouse in the port’s Western Docks since 1990, primarily for the import of tomatoes.
However, the company believes that with an enhancement of the clear span quayside facility, it could handle a much more varied range of produce.
“The Canary Islands trade is seasonal, running usually from October to May,” says Facey. “We believe there are other trades that could be attracted to our facilities in Southampton but appreciate that this will require investment in upgraded cranage, installation of racking, improving the temperature range and, possibly, an ability to handle containers.”
He adds that Solent Stevedores, in conjunction with port owners, Associated British Ports (ABP), plans to provide the necessary infrastructure upgrades. Already, there have been expressions of interest from a number of potential customers who recognise the geographical advantages of routeing fresh produce through Southampton.
“The capital involved to progress the upgrade is substantial but both ourselves and ABP take the view that, with the right partner onboard, we can provide a modern, multi-user facility offering year-round capability and reflecting the needs of market,” Facey explains.
In the north west of England, Peel Ports has already started work on its £300 million new container terminal, Liverpool2, in response to a “clear shift of logistics and distribution patterns” towards Liverpool as the nearest port to market. The new Liverpool2 terminal will offer 600 reefer points with an additional 300 available at the existing container port.
The Port of Dover is also in the midst of a £1 million roll out of improvements, including the upgrading of cargo handling facilities to include ambient, frozen and chilled storage.
After years of stagnation, the activity comes at a time when the National Farmers’ Union is predicting that more than half of the UK’s food, including fresh produce, will be imported within 25 years due to the nation’s rising population, and domestic productivity falling.
NFU president Meurig Raymond gave this stark warning at the union’s February conference in Birmingham. Already some 40% of fresh food, including meat and dairy products, is imported.
Peel Ports also points out that trends in UK fruit consumption are also changing, with a taste for more exotic produce increasing across the UK, requiring a new approach to import and supply as volumes increase.
Gary Parkinson, group asset and supply chain director, says 60% of all container trade is destined for northern England, meaning it makes far more sense for importers and retailers to make Liverpool a preferred port of entry.
“Liverpool is only 40 miles from Manchester (the biggest city in the north of England), compared with Felixstowe, which is 250 miles away and London (Gateway) which is 230 miles away,” Parkinson explains. “Shipping though Liverpool would offer a road haulage saving of between £350 and £400 per container compared to these southern ports.”
Parkinson adds that the whole fresh produce supply chain is undergoing a revolution, where once supermarkets and processors bought through brokers, now they were going direct to suppliers, which requires a different approach to distribution.
Also the way produce is imported is changing, with some 74% of fresh produce reaching the UK last year transported by container, compared with 52% 10 years ago. Also in 2014, trade via refrigerated containers hit 100 million tonnes, with various shipping lines adding to their refrigerated containers fleets.
Peel Ports says this increase in trade reflects both growing consumption in the UK of fresh fruit and vegetables, with figures from DEFRA showing it’s up by 17% in the last 15 years, and an increase of imports by 33%, according to UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), during the same period while domestic production fell.
The shipping industry certainly appears to be supporting the developments at Liverpool, with short-sea operator MacAndrews adding an extra service to its Bilbao-Liverpool journey, taking it to four trips per week. And Metro Shipping has relocated some routes from the Far East into Liverpool, instead of southern UK ports.
Metro Shipping, which acted on behalf of Beneficial Cargo Owners, says the move was in response to increasing costs and delays resulting from traffic congestion and driver demand in the south.
Across the sea, the Irish port of Foynes, in Co. Limerick is full steam ahead to becoming one of the biggest bulk harbours in Europe through a €50 million (£36.5 million) investment by Shannon Foynes Port Company.
The news will not only benefit overseas exporters but also UK producers, as Ireland is still one of Britain’s largest trading partners.
Shannon Foynes chairman Michael Collins says phased work, which started in January, will transform the open quay storage capacity of the port. “This investment will remove a significant traffic bottleneck on the port, deliver faster vessel turnaround times and give us the capacity now to grow our business further,” he says.
“The potential of the estuary and our port facilities is enormous. Thanks to a range of unique advantages, not least the unrivalled depths the Shannon Estuary and its ability to handle vessels larger than any other water course in Ireland, this is a strategic facility that has the potential to unlock huge growth opportunities for not just this region but Ireland.”
In a competitive world market, the investment in British and Irish ports is a key part of retaining sustainable supply sources, ensuring that millions of consumers do not lose out on quality produce.