Goods trafficGoods traffic
Ports of all sizes
Authors: Louis Shurmer-Smith, Frédérique Turbout

The history of the two sides of Channel, with their confrontations and co-operations, is primarily the history of their ports. The Channel presents a highly contrasted ports system operating within an increasingly competitive environment. There are few places in the world where this competition is this more apparent than in the North Sea and the Channel, where the rapidly growing ports industry has had to adjust to profound changes, both in terms of geographic realignment of trade and far-reaching technological changes affecting vessel size and methods of cargo handling. For British ports, the second half of the 20th century brought a traumatic period of adjustment with the virtual demise of a substantial entrepôt trade, mainly linking North America and the European mainland. Prior to World War II this ‘third party' trade accounted for around one third of all UK (re-) exports, with island Britain providing a ‘land-bridge' to the continent. Today the exact reverse is in evidence. With port charges appreciably higher, an increasingly large amount of British trade arrives via the continent. Trans-shipment to offshore Britain has been further facilitated by containerisation.

The European Community now accounts for over 60% of Britain's foreign trade (up by a third from the 1960s when commercial links with the Commonwealth remained strong). Not surprisingly, smaller ports in south east England, well positioned to exploit this new found proximity, have experienced rapid growth. For example, Dover has grown over ten-fold in 35 years to handle some 17 million tons of freight in 2000, the bulk of this in 1.5 million lorries. During the same period, Felixstowe has grown from a small fishing port to a major terminal handling over 3 million containers, 40% of the British total. However, during this period, British ports have not significantly improved their competitiveness by comparison with their north European neighbours.

The whole matter of national port subsidies and fair competition has proved particularly contentious, further exacerbated by the fact that port management, operation and ownership vary considerably, not just between countries but within them. In Britain the statutory powers of ports are very diverse, largely dating back to the privatisation of the British Transport Docks Board in 1983 and its purchase by Associated British ports (ABP) who now control 21 ports, accounting for nearly one third of the county's seaborne trade. Most commercial ports are now in the private sector, with companies operating all but six of the largest ports by tonnage (e.g. Southampton, owned by ABP and recently taken over by Goldman-Sachs in 2006). Otherwise, ports are either in municipal ownership (or ‘hanseatic'), where the local authority owns the port infrastructure (e.g. Portsmouth) or in trust ownership, where the facility is operated by an independent trust established for this purpose (e.g. Dover and Poole). Five of the biggest 20 trust ports support the fishing industry (e.g. Newlyn). In France the nine largest commercial ports are state owned, with the so-called “autonomous” ports run by a management board with a director nominated by the Council of Ministers. Until 2006, there were also state-owned “national” ports, administered by public service appointees, generally Chambers of Commerce and Industry (CCI) and “departmental” ports – mainly smaller fishing ports and marinas with secondary commercial use. Recent decentralisation laws have transferred the responsibility for national ports to the Regions and Departments.




On both sides of the Channel, commercial port traffic is experiencing considerable diversification and change. Arguably, the port of Le Havre, the second biggest French port (after Marseille) with 80 million tons and 2.7 million EVP in 2007, is really the only one that can claim the status of main port. Port 2000 investments already implemented, with more to come, will probably permit the port to retain this role, but it ranks only 5th in Europe for container traffic, behind the North Sea ports. It is far behind Rotterdam in 1st place (407 million tons with more than 10.7 m EVP in 2007) and even Bremen which ranks 4th (4.9 m EVP). The extension projects for these ports: Maasvalkte 2 for Rotterdam, Wihelmshaven for Bremen, lead us to assume they will maintain their position over the coming years.

Southampton, with 41 million tons, is the main British Channel port, despite ranking only 5th in the country: 1st for car traffic, 1st for cruises, and 2nd for containers, 4th for oil and general cargo. Southampton, the home port to Cunard and P&O and a stop-over for Carnival, the world's biggest cruise company, accounts for 40% of the European cruise market, with over 750 000 passengers a year.

Rouen (over 22 million tons in 2007) is primarily a ‘regional' port in that its activity is associated with supplying cargo-handling facilities for the Paris basin, making it the second largest port in the world for cereals after Chicago. Dover and Calais, the twin ports of the Strait, come first for cross-Channel traffic. In 2007, each exceeded the 40 million tons mark, transporting over 2 million vehicles and their passengers, and although this is a substantial reduction since the opening of the Channel Tunnel, it still amounts to over 12 million passengers a year.

The remaining ports are classified as secondary, the most important of these providing cross-Channel freight and passenger services on regular crossings. Dieppe, Caen, Cherbourg, St. Malo, Roscoff on the southern side and Newhaven, Portsmouth, Poole, Weymouth and Plymouth on the northern, come into this category. They each handle less than 4 million tons a year, of which at least three quarters is linked to their transfrontier activities. However this totally understates their wider role in facilitating a record growth in passenger traffic over the last three decades. With 9 ferry companies and 12 routes the intense price competition has not been without its losers, particularly during the 1990s following the opening of the Tunnel, and competition from low-cost airlines.

Brest, Cherbourg, Portsmouth and Plymouth all share a military past and the specific problems involved in the partial conversion of a great military port, with the reduction in the number of ships, the contraction of dockyards and personnel. All four ports have fairly successfully opened themselves up to tourism, relying on substantial investment to take advantage of their heritage and marine biodiversity.

The continued increase in worldwide maritime trade at a rate of 3-5% a year was interrupted by the 2008 economic crisis which is likely to endure to the present. At the same time, an increase in the size of ships, a concentration of operators and, across the board, a reduction in the number of ports capable of handling this trade, has resulted in heightened competition between those within the remaining elite.

The ports of Felixstowe, Thamesport and Southampton are in direct competition for container traffic. A more serious battle, however, centres around becoming the main UK hub in the Channel in order to avoid losing trade to their major European competitors, such as Rotterdam and Bremerhaven and, not least, Le Havre. By the 1990's, all these ports were active in developing new capacity to accommodate larger, wider ships with bigger drafts. All of these projected port expansions raised politically sensitive environmental concerns, notably in the context of Natura 2000 sites within the 1992 European Habitats directives. The Port 2000 project, the extension project for Le Havre, was unveiled in 1995, and the Dibden Bay project for Southampton was announced soon after in 1997. The former would provide 12 extra container berths, additional capacity for 3 to 4 million TEU p.a. on a 125 hectare site already reclaimed for port use back in the 1940s. Although contested, ‘Port 2000' was given the go-ahead.

But from the start, the Dibden Bay project was fiercely opposed by the conservationist lobby, not surprisingly as the site adjoined the New Forest, now a national park, and included acres of highly protected foreshore. In good faith, and at considerable cost, ABP had engaged early in the process with British Nature to agree a package of suitable offsetting measures, following precedents created at the time of a number of previously approved North Sea port extensions. In particular, this included the creation of a new inter-tidal creek covering over 180 hectare to compensate for the loss of internationally important foreshore. Following a lengthy public enquiry the project was finally rejected in 2006, the only example to date of a port development refused consent on environmental grounds. Whilst nothing precludes a resubmitted application in the future, some doubt exists as to whether the next generation of ships would be able to gain access into Southampton Water given the navigational constraints of the deep-water approaches.

In this contest, only Le Havre today is assured of its place as a main port of the Northern Range. It is, however, essential that it develop its hinterland beyond the Paris basin by creating new, or modernising inadequate existing, road, rail and river connections. Similarly, the extension and improvement of port installations and their operation remains a major priority, if it is to expand its function as a hub and create an active ‘feedering' system for a large number of the ports of northwestern Europe. At the next level down, the port of Southampton has similar problems to resolve regarding its hinterland; the way they settle these issues between them will influence the growth trajectories of both ports.

The port of Rouen is faced with a rather different challenge, its continuing role as an out-port for the Parisian region is restricted primarily by its limited access for sea-going ships. Work planned for 2008 to standardize the access channel to - 11.50 m at a cost of 185 million euros, exemplifies the difficulties encountered by bulk carriers loading at the second largest cereal port in the world. Given that a ‘Panamax' container ship with its 4 500 EVP requires a draft of 12 metres, Rouen is mainly used by the intermediate sized ships (1 000 - 4 000 EVP) that are convenient for intra-European and African routes, just so long as these are able to derive a comparative advantage in undercutting costs of lengthy river navigation.

The future of cross-Channel ports depends, for freight, on the standard of road links between points of origin and destination of the vehicles that they carry and, for passenger traffic, on the ability to compete with the low-cost airlines, whose flights have multiplied to the southern countries and regions favoured by British tourists. As long as road traffic increases, they will be able to compete and there will be room for new routes and new ferries. If the talk of the substitution of land motorways by sea highways one day becomes a reality, and the majority of transport from the Iberian Peninsula to the British Isles goes in a direct line via the Bay of Biscay, Ro-Ro transport capacity will become surplus to needs and the less efficient Norman and Breton ports will encounter grave problems. In Britain, only the destination ports at the end of these maritime motorways would prosper.

For all secondary ports in France and England, development depends on exploiting the ‘niches' associated with the economic specialisation of their immediate hinterlands, other than where the reverse case applies, and the presence of a dynamic port encourages agricultural or industrial production to take advantage of its facilities. The ‘small ports' are thus frequently sidelined, and sometimes ignored altogether, by the technocratic proposals of those concerned only with the large scale and the focus on profit as main imperative in balanced regional development. Decentralisation projects must allow these ports to be put to their best use. Local authorities, however, need to join in partnerships with social and economic actors in the pursuit of this ambition. The example of the initiatives that have led to creation of the ‘Federation of Local and Regional Ports' in the Channel within the context of the ‘Arc Manche' and EMDI programmes perfectly illustrates the possibility of joint projects with the aim of ensuring the continuation and efficiency of these port facilities.

Certainly, 'hanseatic ports', all of which are located beyond the Strait, seem to have the competitive edge and there needs to be considerable effort to regain market share, or simply not to lose more ground. This stems as much from actual port developments and modes of operation as from multi-modal transport infrastructures stretching well beyond regional and national spheres of influence.

Even so, there are other ways of thinking and acting at the scale of this ‘little sea,' so long as it is conscious of its totality, its particularities, and its means of directing or shaping an integration of its component parts, whether within a formalised network or not. The attendant cultural change would facilitate the development of ports on both sides, together with the growth of their dependent economies in both France and England.

Le Havre could be at the heart of such a network (not necessarily at its head) with an inner ring of partners being Southampton, Rouen and without doubt, Paris (an autonomous port); the outer ring would include all other ports in the central Channel area. Major shared objectives and concerted strategies would precede any eventual specialisation or division of functions.

Two important areas of specialisation in the evolution of maritime transport could also become valued developments in this sector of the Channel - the regulation of maritime security and the race towards gigantism, particularly in container ships.

In spite of the measures taken for traffic separation zones, hazards still exist, whose consequences become ever more serious with the increasing size of ships. Preventative measures will have to be extended and the management of maritime safety, with its technological innovations and resulting employment, will necessarily become an overriding priority for the central Channel and its ports.

There are ten ships from the Emma-Maersk series, designed with a capacity of 10 000 EVP and capable of carrying 13 500, sailing between Asia, America and Europe. Their 16.50 metre draft already causes problems in several ports. Naval architects have gone even further in imagining the ‘Malacamax' generation, with a capacity of 18 000 EVP and a 21 metre draft. However, the bathymetry of the Channel shows that depths of more than 50 metres are reduced beyond a line between Southampton-Le Havre to around 30 metres in parts of the Strait, with shifting sandbanks that can further reduce depths to 10 to 20 metres.

Under such conditions, the heart of the central Channel will no longer be one of the busiest thoroughfares for the ‘giants of the sea' - bulk carriers, petrol or methane tankers and container ships in particular, but a destination in itself and a ship-to-ship hub site; the bridgehead of a generalised feedering system for northern and northwest Europe.

Which port could take on this role? It is obvious that none of today's ports would be capable of it, but perhaps a floating port could be the answer, similar to the floating docks in Hong Kong, designed constructed and managed by a consortium bringing together all the ports of the zone centred around Le Havre and Southampton together with the world's largest operators … the true port of Europe.