Ports across Britain are calling on the government to extend a grace period on incoming Brexit customs checks or risk food shortages and further damage to businesses.
Docks are scrambling to build new infrastructure to conduct goods inspections but numerous projects will not be finished before July, when the new import processes are due to come into force.
Port managers have been plunged into a morass of red tape and funding issues, with some projects prevented from starting due to wrangling over specifications and planning permission.
“All in all, we're in a very difficult situation which has led to a lot of delays,” said Richard Ballantyne, chief executive at the British Ports Association. “There will be enough of our critical gateways that don't have infrastructure ready in time that it would warrant an extension."
If imports are held up, he warned, shops may face "shortages."
The government agreed to phase in import checks on EU goods to ease the burden on businesses, which have already been coping with export checks since the Brexit transition period ended. It postponed customs declarations, safety declarations and physical checks on imports, including inspections of animal and plant products, to the start of July 2021. Some extra documents will be needed from April.
Ministers also launched a £200-million port infrastructure fund to support ports in building control posts to carry out checks, as well as warehouses and traffic control systems. But the awards were only granted in December 2020, giving ports just over six months to build the infrastructure.
Ports were only informed about the border infrastructure requirements when the border operating model was announced in July 2020
The fund was also oversubscribed, so ports ended up with less cash than they had hoped for, meaning building plans had to be amended or scrapped.
Meanwhile, ports have been wrangling with government agencies about the building specifications needed to conduct checks, further setting projects back.
“Civil projects of this scale require a minimum of 18 months,” said Mike Sellers, the port director of Portsmouth International Port, which had to ditch plans for a border control post due to funding shortages, becoming the subject of a political war.
“Ports were only informed about the border infrastructure requirements when the border operating model was announced in July 2020."
Portsmouth has also faced design approval hold-ups on its other building plans. “Our project will not be substantially completed until late August and we have asked for a period of grace to allow our imports to continue beyond July 2021,” Sellers added.
Ports that do have the necessary infrastructure in place are expected to scoop up trade from the others
Other ports around the River Thames, the River Humber, the River Stour, Wales and the south coast of England are similarly expected not to be ready to conduct checks in July. There are also fears that new inland customs facilities, despite a separate government plan to support them, will not be built in time.
Fresh disruption would be a major setback for the government after overall freight flows were reported to have returned to normal levels following the end of the Brexit transition.
Meanwhile, ports that do have the necessary infrastructure in place are expected to scoop up trade from the others.
Tilbury, a port on the Thames, is set to have new, fully operational border control posts by July and has just completed a £250-million Brexit-ready freight terminal.
“Supply chains are realigning as they seek greater resilience, and our ports are ideally placed to support through our recent infrastructure investment, market-leading turnaround times and capacity for growth," said a spokesperson for the Forth Ports Group.
A government spokesperson said: “Import controls will be introduced in stages as planned. We’ve done this to allow traders and haulers time to adjust to the new processes."
The government is "making significant preparations to ensure [ports] will be ready for the new procedures coming in July" and will continue to "work very closely with all ports that have been allocated funding via the £200 million port infrastructure fund on the delivery of their projects,” the spokesperson added.