Ten thoughts on very large ports

In particular Teesport after our visit this week

  1. Ports are shape shifters – they adapt to changing patterns of traffic (with the application of large amounts of investment that is). Car import terminals become container terminals, steel terminals switch from exports to imports, coal unloading to biomass unloading.
  2. There’s no jobs in logistics sheds per se in the future – at one of the vast Tesco’s distribution sheds at Teesport we were told that they don’t bother to have the lights on because there are no human beings in there.
  3. Ports are fascinating, important but…invisible (as in nobody knows what’s going on behind the fences). Teesport couldn’t have put on a better visit for us but prior to this we found it difficult to organise a visit to a port in the north. Compare and contrast with Rotterdam where tourist boats regularly tour the docks… Don’t see why something similar wouldn’t work in England.
  4. Teesside is used to thinking big. If it hadn’t it wouldn’t be here. First through private sector port and industrial development and later through good old 1970s industrial policy – with a new Teesside authority working with big nationalised industries and big private sector corporations to make it happen. Where now stands chemical works and port facilities there was nothing but mud flats. There’s a great twenty minute documentary ‘Planning Teesside’ 1970 which shows a drive to develop the area’s industrial base but shot through with tensions around environmental impacts and the suspicions of local people around the transfer of powers from local towns to the new authority.
  5. Teesside matters but because it doesn’t fit the current template about regional development being based on agglomeration of white collar employment in core city centres and its population isn’t huge – it tends to get missed out of thinking about the regions. But what’s wrong with being industrial?
  6. Mayors are seen by some as an all purpose governance panacea. Not sure I would go that far however you could see it working well in Teesside given the nature of the economic and political geography and the need for the area to punch its weight
  7. From what we heard the most significant shift in ports policy in recent decades continues to gather momentum. For decades we have been concentrating the biggest ports in the most crowded south eastern part of the country (and the public sector paid vast amounts for the road and rail infrastructure to take the goods to the rest of the country while clogging up key rail and road arteries in the process). The balance in port traffic is now beginning to shift northwards.
  8. If this was Germany, Teesside would have electrified railways with frequent local services joining up its multiple urban centres but also with the capability to handle the freight traffic to and from the port and industrial base. With the decline of the local steel industry and the port’s big ambitions an overhaul of the area’s rail network looks more of a no-brainer than ever.
  9. When you can get invited beyond the fence, ports give you a window into how the wider economy is changing (who knew imports from the Baltics were on the increase?) as well as how technology is enabling mind boggling things to happen with very few people involved (vast container ships with tiny crews for example)
  10. Recommended longer reads on modern ports and shipping: Rose George – ‘Deep Sea and Foreign Going – inside shipping, the invisible industry that brings you 90% of everything‘ and chapter three (‘port statistics’) of ‘The View from the Train: Cities and other Landscapes‘ by Patrick Keiller.

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