Port of Dover : challenging times

Landscape of Dover Port
A view of the Port of Dover. Photo courtesy of S. Gleave

The CEO of the Port of Dover, Doug Bannister, often speaks diplomatically of ‘headwinds’. He referred to headwinds again when he spoke at the Port of Dover’s Annual Consultative Meeting on 25 May 2022. These headwinds since 2020 have included Covid, pandemic lockdowns, paralysis of the travel and cruise sectors, gridlocks, Brexit, leaving the EU and the need to ease the new friction on freight and traffic flow through the port.

“I’ve learned since I came to Dover in 2018 we’re never far from the next crisis: we all remember what happened at Christmas 2020. Very challenging times, but we’ve been able to engage with the community and invest £250 million in the Port’s assets and £50 million in maintenance,” the CEO said at this recent meeting.

Friction caused by Brexit? — A ‘Short Straits Summit’ to help national government understand

The unenviable task of Port of Dover recently has been to explain reality to national UK political leaders, diplomatically enough, so that they agree to legislate in the interests of the Port of Dover. Doug Bannister explained the need to help politicians understand the national importance of roll-on/roll-off operations at Dover Port, and his appreciation of how Dover’s MP helped involve national decision-makers in the Port’s ‘Short Straits Summit’ including also the Kent group of MPs. 

The summit took place at the end of 2021 for people all across the government. The port talked to politicians about how critical the port is for the nation, as the nation’s trading gateway. Port officials also put their case at party conferences. Doug Bannister said, “Our responsibility is huge. We facilitate about £144bn of trade each year, a third of all trade between UK/EU27 comes through this gateway. This is the equivalent of being the largest container port in the UK, the third largest in Europe, all done on space the size of a postage stamp. We get some support but we need more. Key is that traffic is fluid.”

(Author’s Comment: Dover people remember the Imperial College study featured in BBC SouthEast in March 2018 on how a slight increase of checks at Dover would produce significant traffic congestion on M20 and across Kent. And the National Audit Office report of Nov 2018 on Border preparedness. Their professional warnings have been proved correct.(1))

He continued, “Post Brexit we see an increase in cargo checks and immigration checks and stamping passports. We’ve worked on dualling of A2, both are key arteries. We are very concerned about the new EU entry/exit set of biometric controls of passengers. A solution has been found for airports, with automatic cameras in well-lit surroundings, but there is no process for ro-ro ferries 24/7 and carloads of passengers. So we are calling on the government to deliver the solution we require.”

(Author comment : While Port of Dover officers are too diplomatic to mention it, Dover residents remember Conservative minister, Raab, when Brexit secretary, said 8 November 2018 he, “hadn’t quite understood the full extent to which UK trade in goods is particularly reliant on straits of Dover” (2). We Dovorians remember his, Heaton-Harris’s, Grayling’s and Elphicke’s promises in 2017, 2018, 2019 about ‘frictionless freight flow’. We remember these broken promises in 2022 while watching local DDC and KCC Conservatives’ platitudinous comments, as we, the 87 000 voters in Dover district, sit in unsanitary gridlock week after week in 2022, while the HGV drivers that British consumers need, call for their human rights to be protected.) 

Co-existence and collaboration with Eurotunnel 

Asked about the collaboration issue, Doug Bannister explained, “The existence of both Eurotunnel and Port of Dover means there is resilience, strong geographic advantage, of the short straits route, and this attracts more and more volume to SE Kent.” The CEO said that when traffic management challenges happen they work together. For example, he pointed out that there is cooperation in some matters, such as pushing for improved traffic flow to South East Kent, in collaboration with KCC, Department for Transport and DDC, although they are competitors in other areas. An example of the two organisations working together was in 2021 when they were looking at a freeports proposal which ultimately they couldn’t find a solution to.

“We have a more significant voice together talking and lobbying towards the government, including as regards dualling the A2 so that there are two dualled routes crossing Kent, relieving pressure on M20.” 

Congestion / Gridlock across Kent. How long will Kent residents need to put up with the mess? 

East Kent missed out on RIS2 (Road Infrastructure Strategy 2020-2025) as regards dualling the A2. The Port is lobbying again, as they are now trying for RIS3. There is a lot of competition and Dover needs to fight to make a good strategic case for the full dualling of the A2.

(For readers unfamiliar with the road network, Jubilee Way flyover to A2 above eastern docks is three-lane not four-lane and 40 years old, A2 is two-lane under the Guston road bridge to the seaward side of Whitfield Business/Retail park, nor is the section inland of the Whitfield roundabout to Coldred dualled yet, being still only two-lane, so HGV traffic jams can build up and hinder local residents, and visitors to the town.)

The inadequate infrastructure impacts not just on Dover, not just on Kent, but on travellers internationally. 

There was an interesting reply to a question from the public about the need to protect Dover town’s businesses, and prevent the media saying Dover is closed when it is not.

(This happened often throughout April 2022 at Easter when TAP and Brock traffic management involved the queuing of HGVs for miles of Kent motorways, with unhygienic and unhealthy conditions for many drivers. On some days Dover buses were unable to operate.)

Doug Bannister attempted to reassure the public audience that port officials are doing all they can and mentioned: 

  • ferry capacity is now back to what it was (Author’s comment: the weeks of P&O ferries being out of service, for training and safety checks after the mass sackings, has ended: whether consumer confidence will pick-up is another matter.) 
  • increased friction going through the border, but the port is trying to ease matters with new regimes 
  • Port is working hard with ferry operators to understand booking profiles and get forecasts before busy weekends
  • Port is working with PAF French police border service to make certain they are committed to providing staffing in line with booking profiles, 
  • extending the port’s booth provision for border controls, that is currently 6–7 lanes, trying to get to 13 lanes eventually. Hoping to get to nine booths/lanes functioning for the summer holidays. 

Community engagement 

Dover Harbour Board is a historic port organisation that likes to – and has a historic mission to – work well with the Dover town community. In the course of the 2022 meeting, projects of renewed cooperation were listed:

  • with sea anglers over access to Admiralty pier
  • collaboration with Destination Dover which promotes Dover tourism, eg on the Marina Curve and clock tower area 
  • hopes to bring back White Cliffs Christmas event
  • the Port of Dover Community Fund for local charities and initiatives
  • the new Employee volunteering scheme. 

Healthy Financial position despite very challenging times (3) 

The Chief Financial officer, Jonathan Pascoe, referred to ‘significant challenges’: 

  • the pandemic and related lockdowns on overseas travel in UK and in France Nord-Pas de Calais and EU; 
  • economic conditions; 
  • no direct support from the government, except for some furlough, 
  • the need to ease flow of passenger vehicles through the port,
  • the challenge of Brexit leaving the EU.

He cited a revenue figure in the last financial year of almost £69 million, and a profitability figure of £26.5million, an increase on the previous (very Covid affected) year. Not only the ferry sector which is largest, but also freight held up well. Cargo is starting to benefit from the move to Western docks, but there were crane problems for the Cargo sector to resolve last year too.

It has been a difficult year for cruise vessels but better than previous year 2020/21, with more bookings in the current year. Property revenue and revenue from the marina were flat. Dover port was involved with Southampton in developing new cruise protocols for testing. 

[Editor’s note: The Port of Dover is not a private company with shareholders. It became a “Trust port” under Gordon Brown’s government. This means that any money available from “profitability” should be reinvested to improve the port and its surroundings. The Western Docks development is an example of such investment: it received approximately £36 million in EU funding.]

1) UK National Audit Office Warns of Lack of Border Preparedness for Brexit – EPA Monitoring
Post-Brexit border checks ‘may triple queues’ to port – BBC News

2) Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab Admits He Did Not Understand How Important The Dover-Calais Crossing Was | HuffPost UK Politics (huffingtonpost.co.uk) 

3) For Port of Dover Annual reports including 2021, link here. About – Annual Reports – Port of Dover (doverport.co.uk)