Should the town own the Port of Dover?

My hometown of Dover happens to be home to one of the worlds busiest ports, but if you wandered through the town centre and didn’t know otherwise, you probably wouldn’t believe it.

The High Street is rife with boarded-up shops, while potholes adorn nearly every road. The social and economic crises facing British seaside towns has been well documented, both during and before(paywall) the COVID-19 pandemic. And as the country emerges from the public health crisis which seems to have reshaped the world, the old problems of British coastal communities call for bold new solutions. In the case of Dover, a new approach to one of the town’s most famous assets could be the solution it needs.

It’s important to bear in mind that arguably the Port of Dover is already public property, but not in the same way it used to be. The Port was privatised in 2009 by Gordon Brown’s Labour government and turned into a Trust Port. Trust Ports are established by the state and are managed by self-governing statutory corporations such as the Dover Harbour Board.

One advantage of this, by the admission of the Harbour Board’s own report, is that the Port has no shareholders, and therefore pays out no dividends. The Harbour Board seems to take its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) seriously as well, as demonstrated by its Community Fund project. Through this, they provide grants to local projects and activities, usually between £2000 and £10,000 in value. While this is nothing to be sniffed at – and no doubt these grants have gone to good use, a few grants to local projects is a far cry from the significant investment needed to turn around the fortunes of the town.

Of course, there are various ways in which the Port could be made to better serve the town of Dover. It could be nationalised wholesale and brought under direct national or local government control; but this would be a mammoth task, likely taking years to complete. So if the Port governance structure were to be reformed with the immediate benefit of the town in mind, at the moment, nationalisation probably is not the way to go. Besides, as an asset of importance to the whole country, and not just south east Kent, any form of public ownership it could be under, would have to involve some kind of significant stake for the national government, as well as the regional one.

One of the most interesting ownership structure proposals surprisingly came from Charlie Elphicke, the now disgraced former Conservative MP for Dover and Deal, who, amidst the chaos of the privatisation plan in 2010, suggested that the Port be sold to a community trust, who could lease it to an operator. This too would likely take quite some time, but probably less than outright nationalisation – whilst generating revenue from the lease for the community trust, thereby guaranteeing a level of immediate benefit for the local community.

Of course, in a sense, the Port of Dover already does reinvest into the local community, in the form of its investment in infrastructure critical to the operation of the Port, primarily the ongoing Dover Western Docks Revival (DWDR) project. This is aimed at revitalising the Western Docks area, not only through a new pier which has already been completed, but also via a new marina, intended to attract a host of shops, bars cafes and restaurants.

However more retail outlets and cafes are neither what Dover needs right now, nor a helpful long-term plan for investment. The St. James Dover shopping centre, a project 20 years in the making, isn’t faring particularly well, despite its £53 million value. According to the latest map, eight of the units intended to host businesses still stand empty. If this huge project, allegedly in prime real estate for generating business, still cannot find businesses to occupy some of their units, which were built at great expense, what reason is there to develop the Western Docks with similar intentions? Dover doesn’t need more buildings standing empty for months at a time, with brief interludes hosting chain cafés; it needs investment which is worthwhile in the long term whilst fulfilling a definite social good.

These plans to develop the Western Docks into something of a shopping arcade, much like the St. James development, seem to ignore the fact that Dover already has perfectly good shopping spaces on the High Street. However, those of us who have lived in Dover for any protracted period will notice that, over time, more and more High Street businesses close, leaving the former focal point of shopping and community in Dover increasingly empty. Some of us may even recall the McDonald’s in the town centre, the huge building it once occupied having stood empty ever since.

Rather than the Port using its revenue to attempt to build ever more new and flashy locations for businesses, the Port could benefit the community at large by investing in the High Street itself.

The Port Authority is clearly focusing its investment plans on building new retail areas rather than regenerating that which Dover already has. As such, with the current ownership and governance model of the Port in place, it is clear that Dover, as its long-time residents know, is unlikely to visibly benefit from the presence of the Port. The people of Dover have to deal with the traffic created by the Port, and everything else that comes with it, so it seems reasonable to expect that the Port should benefit the community in ways other than just infinitely expanding the amount of Costa Coffees which the town can host.

As stated earlier, a comprehensive plan to bring the Port back into public ownership to enhance its benefit for the town is both ambitious and unlikely. But that doesn’t mean that for Dover’s sake we shouldn’t suggest more immediate ways in which the ownership and management of the Port could be reworked. It seems unlikely that a community trust with the money to buy the Port will be founded any time soon, but the Port earmarking a certain amount of its expenditure (ideally a high percentage), for direct investment in or donations to the town, its already-existing businesses and the local council, rather than building more shops in the immediate area of the Port, is not an unreasonable idea.

Whatever you may think about how the Port of Dover should be owned and managed and how its money should be invested, it is abundantly clear to those of us who have lived in Dover that the town needs regeneration. Its core asset is not being utilised to the full extent of benefit it could bring to the town. As one of the busiest ports in this area of the world and an asset of national importance, it would be absurd to suggest that the Port should be wholly owned and managed for the benefit of Dover alone, but it doesn’t seem absurd to suggest that the Port should be put to better service for the people who live near it.