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Don’t mention the B word

The current reticence from government ministers and industry supporters to mention Brexit or talk about the challenges facing UK shipping is not helping the industry. No matter how compelling their vision of the next 30 years looks, we have to get through the next three years first

The future looks bright for UK shipping, as long as you focus entirely on 2050 and don’t look too hard at the current realities facing the sector. And whatever you do, don’t mention the B word

THE average scrapping age of vessels may have reduced in recent years, but they still have a significantly longer lifespan than transport ministers.

So, the context of timeframe is key when considering national maritime policy promises and strategic government ambitions.

The flurry of ministerial maritime UK cheer-leading over the past week has focused resolutely on the 2050 horizon, where the future looks not only bright, but decarbonised, digitalised and with a flourishing fleet of industry leaders at the helm.

Such aspirational ambitions are of course to be welcomed, particularly when backed by genuinely positive strategy documents setting out a course aligned with industry thinking and government backing.

But pitched without an acknowledgment of the current crisis at the heart of UK shipping or solid plans to tackle the immediate uncertainty of Brexit, such visions begin to lose credibility.

When the much-lampooned transport secretary Chris Grayling stepped in for the notably absent shipping minister Nusrat Ghani at the House of Commons on Monday to talk up his aspirations for shipping over the next 30 years, he made all the right noises about shipping being “crucial to our country”.

The fact that few expect him to survive in his role beyond next week’s UK leadership changes was inevitably not on the agenda.

Nor was the fact that well over 30% of the UK flagged fleet has staged a Brexit exodus over the past 12 months alone and even the most ardent of UK supporters don’t see any of it coming back in hurry. The fact that this most recent exit has only compounded the existing problems with maritime UK’s leaky bucket syndrome, holed by successive government failures including, but not limited to, the handling of non-dom status among the London Greeks, well, that wasn’t mentioned either, surprisingly enough.

Brexit uncertainty has gutted the UK flag, injected uncertainty into almost every aspect of maritime business and the underwhelming lack of ministerial-level direction being offered to the few companies remaining in the UK has left several senior industry officials privately fuming about governmental incompetence of the highest order.

The fact that one set of government ministers are heading into an election leadership-fuelled re-shuffle is not the issue of course — shipping has survived lower political prominence than it does now and a steady turnover of ministerial masters with varying degrees of enthusiasm for the lowly brief.

But a 30-year focus, however necessary as an ultimate goal, doesn’t just need to outlive successive governments — it needs to outlive the current industry. Even the relative youth on display in the boardrooms of the few remaining shipping companies left in Brexit Britain will be well over 70 by the time these pledges mature. Most won’t be around to see it all.

A week is long time in politics. Thirty years is frankly guesswork.

And yet, despite all this, there remains a lingering whiff of positivity amid the parliamentary afternoon teas and press primers being staged to push September’s London International Shipping Week festivities before the summer holidays kick in.

Strategy is strategy, regardless of who’s at the helm and the direction of travel is set, argue those determined to push past the Brexit uncertainty and head to the 2050 promised land.

It would take a bold and radical change of direction to pull back on the central platform of environmental efficiency at the heart of the 2050 government strategy and while the devil is inevitably in the detail, the fact that the current strategy has been produced with industry consultation and support is important.

As Mr Grayling put it on Monday, there is no shortage of government strategy documents that were produced in a blaze of glory only to be left gathering dust on the shelf. But with sufficient industry partnership keeping things on track, there is a compelling enough argument that this one stands a chance of remaining alive, at least in terms of the direction of travel if not the scant detail that did make it in there in the first place.

The Brexit uncertainty is a little more difficult to shake off, even by those resolutely determined to see the opportunity amid all the threats. And yet there is an optimist’s vision to offer here as well.

Arguably Brexit has reminded many in government outside of the Department for Transport (and a worrying amount inside) that shipping is an essential part of the UK economy. The fact that shipping is now on the agenda within environment, trade and industry briefs is a positive step up in terms of political visibility.

Once the slow-motion tanker collision that is Brexit has played out, there is also an opportunity for the UK to right some of the wrongs of European policies that have been a bugbear of shipowners for years.

Unshackled

Scrap the EU’s scrapping policy, they argue. Offer an environment conducive enough to shipowners that they can rely on sensible rules and stability. Court the owners in the same way that Singapore does so successfully. Unshackled from the structures of the EU’s more extreme bureaucracy and one-size-fits all policies, the UK has an opportunity to go it alone and thrive as a result.

While such arguments may be a political leap of faith for either side of the Brexit debate, particularly given successive government track records, there is a solid basis for such an approach to be built on.

The depressingly diminished UK flag has lost owners due to Brexit, not quality. In terms of pricing, service and the reputation of expertise on offer, the Red Ensign holds up remarkably well against any flag you care to compare it with. Furthermore, the recent re-shuffle in management that has placed authority under the hugely admired Katy Ware has reinforced the perception that there are serious people to do business with left in the UK. Add to this existing quality and reputation of the surrounding UK finance, legal insurance and increasingly tech cluster components, and you still have a positive story to tell.

Come shipping week in September, the industry will be out in force to remind the maritime world that the UK cluster has a lot to shout about, in spite of Brexit. For too long the UK survived on looking back and trumpeting its maritime heritage. It is a good thing that both the industry and government have now switched the focus to the future. But choosing to ignore the present and focus entirely on the promise of 30 years hence is not a credible strategy.

London Shipping Week may have some difficult questions to answer, but it is essential that those questions are raised and an honest discussion of the next five years is dealt with along with the next 35 years.

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