Uncalm before the storm
The logistics industry in the United Kingdom is gearing up its loins for what it now considers the inevitable – a hard Brexit. The business mood is fluctuating between a stiff upper lip and the fear of a total traffic logjam in the Southeast of England.
There is no apparent end to the Brexit drama in the United Kingdom. The fronts have become so totally hardened that a viable solution is becoming evermore unrealistic. The risk of the UK departing the EU on 29 March without any agreement, that is to say a hard Brexit, is now ever-more likely.
Over the past few weeks British politicians’ increasing unwillingness to find a solution has triggered strong responses from the transport and logistics industry. Robert Keen, director general of the British International Freight Association (Bifa), believes that – with the exit date looming – “companies handling the United Kingdom’s trade must prepare for a hard Brexit.”
Logisticians to clear up politicians’ mess
Once the exit, whatever form it takes, is complete, Keen sees British freight forwarders assuming a crucial role. Operators with AEO status could ensure the flow of imports and exports between the British Isles and continental Europe. Keen believes that “Bifa’s members can then tidy up the mess left behind by politicians.”
Some industry representative nevertheless continue to believe in an orderly Brexit, and Bifa will carry on its work towards that end. “Bifa’s members will naturally retain their focus on ensuring the efficient flow of freight for our customers. We’ll simultaneously also renew our appeals to London and Brussels to do the utmost to prevent a scenario in which trade barriers increase.”
The Brexit debates in parliament are ongoing, but behind the scenes work on how to cope with the impact of a hard Brexit persists. The British government has earmarked GBP 30 million for what it has termed ‘Operation Brock’, an emergency scheme to manage traffic after Brexit and to cushion the impact of the exit on the logistics industry.
The M20 motorway linking Dover and London is one of the key foci of the undertaking. It caters to thousands of lorries carrying goods between the UK and the EU every day. 17% of the nation’s trade is managed through the port on the English Channel. The Freight Transport Association’s Heidi Skinner says that, though government support is naturally very welcome, “there is possibly no longer enough time to take effective measures.”
The apron of Manston airfield (now closed) in eastern Kent, approximately 32 km from the port of Dover, has been designated as a potential interim lorry parking zone in case of all to disruptive traffic jams in southeastern England. In January the authorities conducted test runs involving 89 lorries. A convoy this size can hardly be considered an effective test, however, what with 10,000 lorries daily using the port of Dover today.
The warehouses are full
Strong demand for warehousing facilities in southeastern England is one of the results of the rampant insecurity surrounding Brexit. Peter Ward, CEO of the United Kingdom Warehousing Association, is worried. “When there’s a supply shortfall businesses respond by holding more stock. How ever, there’s already a lack of warehousing space today, and there aren’t many speculative building plans in the pipeline at the moment either.”
At the end of 2018 the association conducted a straw poll of its membership – with clear results. 85% of those surveyed reported Brexit-related enquiries, mostly for short-term needs. 75% are now full and unable to take on new business.
The UK’s logistics industry faces a turbulent future.