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The Interview: Nusrat Ghani

The Interview: Nusrat Ghani

When Nusrat Ghani talked to Lloyd’s List last week, she noticeably spoke about her roles as UK Shipping Minister in the past tense. There was speculation that she could be in line for promotion. Instead, she has been sacked as part of prime minister Boris Johnson’s reshuffle. She leaves the UK maritime sector, relatively speaking, in a good place, enjoying a period high-profile status within UK government and will be remembered as one of the most effective maritime ministers of recent years. 

When UK shipping minister Nusrat Ghani talked to Lloyd’s List last week, she noticeably spoke about her job in the past tense. There was speculation that she could be in line for promotion. Instead, she has been sacked as part of prime minister Boris Johnson’s reshuffle. What follows can be seen as her parting shot to the industry that she has worked closely with for the past two years.

 

SHIPPING has struggled with successive UK governments.

Benign noises have been made by a changing cast of junior ministers landed with the maritime brief on their way up, or out, of the Westminster hierarchy. But even within the Department for Transport shipping has rarely topped the political priority list.  

So, taking the helm of the UK’s maritime sector amid Brexit headwinds two years ago was, on paper at least, not an auspicious set of circumstances.

Consider the UK flag’s tonnage ‘Brexodus’ as the already diminished list of UK-based owners fled the continuing uncertainty regarding the UK’s trading future, the prospect of weakening clout within the International Maritime Organization and then there was the Seaborne Freight fiasco, where the much lampooned cross-Channel ferry start-up with no vessels, became a symbol of government incompetence during the chaotic stumble towards the UK’s exit from Europe.

And yet, Nusrat Ghani has served the shipping brief in what the Chinese call interesting times to notable acclaim.

“I got lucky. I got the brief at the right time,” said Ms Ghani, talking to Lloyd’s List in the DfT’s Westminster office between a recent flurry of national port visits.

“Everyone was open to me doing things differently. We were able to put some strategies in place that gave us a strong voice to campaign for better funding and a greater understanding of what the maritime sector was doing not only in the UK but also overseas. Timing is everything.”

Maritime, relatively speaking, is enjoying a period high-profile status within UK government. The flurry of ministerial cheerleading witnessed during last year’s London Shipping Week spoke of a government and industry operating in lock step with a clear strategic vision of a fully decarbonised, digitalised sector by 2050. Even accounting for the puff of vested interest in this rosy view there is a genuine sense of industry engagement, even from the usually more cantankerous industry veterans who have never previously held back in their forthright views on government failings.

Successive reports trumpeting the £46bn ($56.9bn) contribution the UK’s maritime sector makes to the country’s economy have finally woken up the UK Treasury to the significance of shipping’s importance. Well, that and the timely Brexit-fuelled realisation that an island nation relies heavily on maritime industries. Even the prime minister has latched on to the power of a positive shipping soundbite, name checking maritime innovation in his first speech following the UK’s EU exit last month, albeit in the context of a quote from Tennyson’s Ulysses.

And at the centre of this apparent maritime renaissance within government thinking, the near omnipresent shipping minister, simultaneously preached the good word of “shipping being the lifeblood of our island economy” to her political peers, and relentlessly badgered the industry’s boardrooms and acronym soup of representative bodies into accelerating a progressive leadership strategy. 

“My challenge to the [UK Chamber of Shipping] has always been that you have got to put the numbers on this,” said Ms Ghani explaining the crucial role of independent analysis like last year’s Centre for Economics and Business Research report which spelled out how maritime directly employs more than 185,000 people, carries 95% of exports and imports and generated £14.5bn.

“These are the figures that we need to take the industry forward… and 2020 is the year for us. We can actually make some changes and what’s interesting is that the mood music from the prime minister is that if we have to make changes for the right reason, let’s have a crack at this. There’s a great space for us to be in.”

While Brexit has cast a long shadow over the UK shipping sector for several years, even hardened Remainers have recognised that the UK government’s engagement in the maritime industries is a unique opportunity to be taken seriously and swiftly. The UK’s Maritime 2050 strategy, launched by Ms Ghani last year setting out a generational industry strategy encompassing decarbonisation, digitalisation and much in between, represents an ambitious vision of industry and government in partnership. As the previous transport secretary Chris Grayling acknowledged at the time of launch, there is no shortage of government strategy documents produced in a blaze of glory only left to gather dust on the shelf, but so far this one seems to be gathering momentum. 

“We did something very different over the past two years. It really was about getting everyone to focus. But when people ask me — can we slow down? I say, no — I think this is our year now and the prime minister has made clear he doesn’t want to hold back either. He has talked about how global free trade is going to require fantastic maritime innovation and technology — well we’re already doing it… we’ve got a strategy in place and we’re moving as fast as we can.”

One of the more immediate deliverables on the government’s maritime agenda will be to create up to 10 freeports to “turbocharge’ trade in the wake of Britain leaving the European Union. After a 10-week consultation on the issue was officially announced last week many of the UK’s largest ports are expected to pitch their plans.

Ms Ghani stressed that the outcome is very much “in the hands of the port sector” and points to a transparent, collaborative process.

It is, however, a politically sensitive process given the timing and context of the consultation and while ports are keen to bid, there is also concern that it could become a top down political instrument to secure electoral advantage.

Put crudely the dichotomy is this: boosting Felixstowe and Southampton, which are getting the main haul calls from Asia, makes economic sense if the object of the exercise is to turbocharge the economy and unleash Britain’s post-Brexit entrepreneurial dynamism. But if the idea is to boost ‘left behind’ areas are prop up the so-called red wall gains, then Humberside and Teesside are the obvious candidates.

Ms Ghani criss-crossed the country in a studiously balanced agenda during recent weeks to personally assure ports that the process is going to fair and effective.

“I understand the anxiety, but I want I want the sector to be assured that as we have presented freeports in the maritime 2050 plan — that is still what we’re trying to achieve. We want to see ‘centres of excellence’ being pitched forward and we want the process to be as transparent as possible because we were working with the sector for a couple of years on this. The best free port proposal put forward are the ones, I hope, obviously will be the ones that will be chosen.”

Another political hot potato for the shipping minister has been the UK Ship Register, which lost more than a third of its tonnage last year, largely because of commercial concerns from owners regarding Brexit. That in turn resulted in a government U-turn on its previously targeted doubling of the flag size to 30m gt.

Following a brief period of “inward reflection”, the UKSR came out fighting in September with a new vision to become the “world’s best performing international flag” focused on quality metrics, improved efficiency and a more realistic growth target. 

“We have an opportunity now to make the flag even more competitive. They have targets that they need to meet and my job is to make sure that we are putting in the right legislation or pitching it at the right at the right place to make sure that we can get more people coming back… There was anxiety due to the elections, but the attitude has changed enormously and yes, the relationship with Europe has changed, but at least there’s that certainty that's been given to them. We just make the service better. That means digitalising lots of things that we need to and moving on everything that we’ve had planned that has now just got to be place.”

“We need to look at how we do it, what offer we can make, how we can make it super competitive, and then just go out and sell it as much as we can”.

But if the future of the Red Ensign presents a pressing domestic agenda item for Ms Ghani’s successor, it is the bigger picture of the environmental agenda that will need to be sustained far beyond this government.

The Clean Maritime Plan launched last year by Ms Ghani, sets out how government sees the transition to a future of zero-emission shipping. The ambition is for all new vessels being ordered for use in UK waters to be designed with zero-emission propulsion capability by 2025, and for the UK ship register to be the global leader in emission-free initiatives by 2035 — a bold ambition, even for the most optimistic engineer working on decarbonisation solutions.

“People have begun to understand that the environmental agenda is actually one that we can embrace,” said Ms Ghani, who has touted the UK to lead the technological innovation required to hit the government targets.

“We’ve put out what our ambitions are and I know that sometimes people whisper that I am a challenging minister, but I do wear that as a badge of honour, I really do. And I set the sector a whole new challenge by putting together the clean maritime plan. And I recognise that it’s challenging, and I recognise that it has economic issues around it, but we’ve got to get it done and we’ve got to get it right, which is why I want to work with the sector on it.

“The environment is incredibly important not just to the government but to the sector too and I cannot be hosting the International Maritime Organization and driving it to be ambitious and not show willing in having a national strategy, and having our ports and our shipping on side is essential.”

Amid the relentlessly upbeat optimism of a minister on a mission, there was, however, one area causing her concern.

“If I had only one anxiety for the next year, it would be the people element of everything that we’re doing — we just need more people.

While the government’s ambitious strategy to encourage more young people to seek out rewarding careers in the sector, as outlined in the Maritime 2050 strategy, the transport industry is going to require more than 340,000 extra workers in the sector by 2033.

“We’re going to need a hell of a lot of people, but for maritime especially we’re going to need more, so every time I hear about a ports ambitions to get bigger, or shipping lines ambition to come and have a permanent berth here, or the extra work that we need to get done to get people to work in our areas of research, our areas of tech and innovation… we just need so many people. So anything that we can do to try and promote our wider sector, everything from making sure we’re taking care of our oceans to getting people to become seafarers is one that we're going to have to work out how we have a massive change in the next couple of years.”

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