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Ports expand without guide
Planning – 31 March 2006

Approval of three major ports on the east coast highlights the lack of a clear national strategy, reports Mark Smulian.

Look out to sea off the Essex coast and what appears to be a new island catches your eye. But then the island moves.

What you are watching is one of the giant container ships that put in daily to the ports of Harwich, Felixstowe and Tilbury. All three east coast ports are about to see a massive wave of further development as the shipping industry struggles to keep pace with the rising tide of goods flowing into the UK.

Planners are caught up in debates over the location of extra port facilities and their impact. But with no overall strategy for sea transport, assessing proposals is not easy. England has no national spatial plan at all, so each application is considered by authorities on its merits rather than in relation to port proposals elsewhere.

Clearly, it is the freight industry's problem if it ends up with an uneconomic excess of capacity. However, the environmental issues raised by port developments are very much the concern of nearby communities, and nowhere more than in Essex. The county is caught in a ports pincer, with proposals close to final approval at Bathside Bay near Harwich and Shellhaven on the Thames Estuary.

Essex County Council has become involved in both proposals. "I am critical that we do planning in a vacuum because we have no national ports policy and so developments are judged ad hoc," says head of planning Geoff Gardner. In the event, the authority has supported both proposals, subject to suitable safeguards.

Shellhaven is just inside unitary Thurrock Council's area, but road links to the London Gateway scheme traverse Essex. The site is an isolated 600ha former oil refinery in established industrial use. Much of the planning effort on this 1.4 billion project is largely confined to negotiating road links with the Highways Agency.

Bathside Bay on the Essex bank of the Stour Estuary is a key component of the expanding Haven Gateway port complex. Promoter Hutchison Ports claims that the project will bring some 50 million a year into the local economy. It will complement Hutchison's operation on the Suffolk side of the estuary at Felixstowe South, granted provisional approval earlier this year (Planning, 3 February, p1).

"Bathside Bay needs road and rail infrastructure to serve it and the developer is funding an upgrade of the A120, which is the main access route," explains Gardner. "We are supportive of the Haven Gateway for the regeneration benefits it brings. There are some environmental downsides, but generally it is good for the area."

The benefits are expected to be felt throughout north-east Essex. "We strongly support Bathside Bay as it will bring some 1,600 jobs and we have to create 50,000 by 2021 under the regional plan," says Colchester Borough Council executive director Mike Crouch. "Unemployment is low in Colchester at 1.5 per cent, but there are places nearby where it is much higher and they need regeneration."

Such concerns cut little ice with the promoters of expansion at Teesport in the North East. PD Ports estimates that the scheme would bring 7,000 jobs and 300 million of investment to the Tees Valley. It is urging ministers to reassure the region that its overall needs remain a priority and that southern port expansion does not undermine the Northern Way strategy.

"By indicating its approval for development at Felixstowe South, the government has lost a golden opportunity to carry out a strategic ports review in advance of three major decisions," says PD Ports group development director Martyn Pellew. But his view that a national strategy would help is not shared by all in the industry.

"We are not unhappy at the lack of a national ports policy," admits a Hutchison spokesman. "There has not been one for 30 years and during that time the industry has increased its vibrancy and efficiency. The only area where there might be a debate is over the funding of road and rail improvements to ensure that conditions are imposed consistently and fairly."

But the lack of a spatial plan could hamper business because it has no guidance on where development proposals will be received favourably, says Steve Clark, chairman of the Planning Officers Society's spatial planning committee. He argues that England needs a spatial plan.

Clark insists that this need not result in a lengthy bureaucratic exercise but would lead to coherence on major development. "As with any plan, it could be viewed as a restriction on business," he concedes. "But it could help business too. Otherwise it can spend money pursuing opportunities with no way of knowing know whether that might be money wasted."

The Wales Spatial Plan and Scotland's national planning framework do not seem to have taken a great deal of time and cost to develop, Clark points out. He argues that without a spatial plan, applications are seen in isolation.

Civil servants have told the society that an English spatial plan is off the agenda at present. If it ever finds favour, it will be too late to inform decisions on the present wave of port developments. But with the industry insisting that capacity still needs to be expanded, it could have a major impact on future proposals.

"We have ended up with two major port developments in Essex but not one at Southampton," Clark notes, recalling the government's rejection of plans for a container port at Dibden Bay two years ago. "No-one has considered that the individual decisions might conflict with the sustainable communities plan or with infrastructure needs. The two in Essex could damage others, but there is no way to establish that."

Once final details on road and rail upgrades are settled, London Gateway, Bathside Bay and Felixstowe South will proceed. Given the government's enthusiasm for regional regeneration, the Teesport proposal must stand a good chance too. But without a national plan, who can say whether the country needs four additional ports in those particular places?