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A bold, but achievable vision for UK shipping

The UK’s 2050 strategy represents an ambitious vision of industry and government in partnership and its success, or failure, is entirely in our hands

The devil, will inevitably, be in the detail of how this generational project is rolled out, but there is little to criticise in the level of ambition on display

A WEEK may be a long time in politics, but 30 years is a timeframe that can be dealt with much more easily.

In setting out a 2050 vision of the UK maritime sector, the embattled, Brexit-weary government of the day can be comparatively free to take an ambitiously positive line promising a tech-savvy industry thriving on growing trade, untroubled by the immediate chaos of a looming no-deal exit from the European Union.

If that sounds overly cynical, it’s not intended to be. It’s as it should be. The government and expert panel of industry contributors who moulded this important generational strategy were right to eschew the immediately unknowable and focus on the most ambitiously achievable vision for the UK’s maritime sectors.

Brexit, whatever the outcome, only makes this a more urgent process to get right. But the political context of this report is not as important as many would assume.

The most significant factor in determining whether this 2050 vision ultimately succeeds as a generational project, or is swiftly consigned to the political scrap yard of failed ambition, will be the industry’s willingness to genuinely engage.

The political commitments on display here are to be applauded, but there is little beyond the aspirational focus you would expect of a government keen to retain a £14bn industry. And let’s be honest — the UK government has never offered shipping much in the way of cash hand-outs, so all we really expect is some semblance of stability and a reliable commitment to getting the infrastructure right.

This is pitched, rightly, as a partnership between government and industry and while there is real money needed to deliver the government’s side of the bargain, the lion’s share of the initiatives are industry-led in terms of implementation.

Success or failure is very much in our hands.

The devil will, as ever, be in the detail of how this ambitious set of short, medium and long-term objectives are rolled out via a series of road maps that will now follow the fanfare publication of 189 individual recommendations and a compelling high-level executive summary.

Such things will inevitably have to be an iterative process, particularly on the bold digital-hub focus that risks looking outdated before even the short-term five-year horizon is over, such is the pace of change and development in that sector.

But overall, the direction is one of positive, practical steps towards a reformed and modernised UK shipping sector that looks forward to the challenges of the future, rather than overly relying on the heritage of past glories, which have long since eroded for many parts of the UK maritime economy.

The UK will continue to face stiff competition from more agile and often more relevant maritime cities, and this government strategy does not look significantly different from that of many others. However, if a true partnership between industry and government can together deliver this achievable set of goals over the coming 30 years, then the UK will continue to punch above its weight as a small island nation, regardless of its political allegiances, or lack thereof.

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