The waiting game: Will post-Brexit bureaucracy cause chaos at our Sussex ports?

Photograph of a road sign that reads: Newhaven Port - HGVs not border-ready will be turned away.
A sign of the times bringing border bureaucracy. Photo credit: Ginny Smith

So at last we have a deal with the EU. It may be a poor deal with no hint of the sunlit uplands previously promised, but it does at least give a level of certainty to businesses and hauliers. And the pressure on the Sussex ports of Newhaven and Shoreham has, of course, eased with a guarantee of no immediate tariff impositions. Or has it?

As the current leader of Lewes District Council, James MacCleary, pointed out in a recent interview with BBC SouthEast on 15 December: “You have to remember that Newhaven is not a large port. It doesn’t take a lot of redirection or lorries arriving with incorrect forms to cause significant disruption. The port authorities have been quite explicit about this – incorrect paperwork will result in lorries being turned away. So it doesn’t really matter how much capacity there is inside the port (not much, as it happens), those large artics will be on the streets of Newhaven, Peacehaven and Seaford and up the A26. They’ve got to find somewhere to wait.”  

Lewes MP Maria Caulfield claims in a recent email to constituents that after 1 January “businesses will be able to continue to trade smoothly”. Her statement is both misleading and incorrect. As MacCleary explained, “It’s not tariffs that are the problem. The issue is the vastly increased paperwork involved in exporting goods through our port to the EU now that we are classed as a third-party country.”

Increased red tape spells danger

Confirming the massive added bureaucracy facing exporters as from 1 January, the general manager of Logistics UK  told Radio Four’s Today programme on 28 December that the EU/UK deal does not solve the non-tariff barriers, “and the administrative costs and faff of getting goods across the border is going to be significant”.  

So what are implications for hauliers using the roll-on, roll-off ferry service from Newhaven to Dieppe? If delays are to be avoided, four key elements need to be in place and working without a hitch. 

Firstly, traders and hauliers must ensure they have the correct paperwork and clearance permissions to board. Without these, they’ll be turned away and truck drivers will be forced to park up and wait for any errors or missing declarations to be corrected.  

Secondly, both port and central government IT systems must be working efficiently from the moment that they go live on 1 January. Any glitch or downtime can, as we have seen at Dover, lead to lengthy delays and tailbacks.  

Thirdly, the skilled and trained personnel required to run the sanitary and phytosanitary checks demanded by the EU will have to be in place. No up-to-date figures exist to show how many of the 50,000 additional customs staff needed have actually been recruited and trained. Nor is there information about staffing levels at Newhaven Port. 

But is the current 12% shortfall in the number of Official Veterinarians (OVs) trained to carry out food safety checks and sign export health certificates the tip of an iceberg for Newhaven? 

“Every consignment of meat or meat-based products, from steaks and sausages to beef curries and Hawaiian pizzas, will need an OV to inspect it and sign an Export Health Certificate.”  

British Meat Processors Association, October 2020

And finally, the right infrastructure and facilities must be ready on site for inspections to be carried out on lorry loads, including cold stores and customs offices. Newhaven Port finally received a payment of six million pounds from the government just before Christmas to help with the costs of additional Brexit-related infrastructure, but the timing was very close to the wire.   

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link

Given these critical issues, the concerns of a senior consultant and ex-customs officer from Harod Associates, who has been helping to steer clients through the maze that is Brexit for the past year, carry real weight. “Newhaven struggled to cope at times in the past when there was only a fraction of lorry capacity that there is now. Queues are inevitable. Shipping agents in the main in the UK and Europe work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. Clearance will have to wait if there are problems.  And many small businesses are still not prepared for Brexit and do not understand the terms of trade involved. Multiple loads in a lorry, known as groupage, will require separate entries and if one is wrong the whole lorry is delayed.” 

For “businesses to continue to trade smoothly” in 2021, all the interlocking pieces of a complex system need to be in place and working effectively. For Newhaven, as for other south coast ports, that looks like an extremely challenging – perhaps an impossible – ask.

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