Ports across the country are threatening legal action against the government if compensation is not paid to cover the millions of pounds they have spent on building new border checkpoints.
The posts, which were due to be launched this month, were designed to carry out physical checks on imports of plant and animal products from the EU after Brexit – a measure which was due to come into force on 1 July.
But now they may never be used as planned.
In late April, the government announced that controls would be suspended until at least the end of next year amid concerns about the cost of living crisis.
Portsmouth is the UK’s second busiest port across the English Channel, with a quarter of a million lorries passing through each year carrying goods to and from Europe.
Its £25 million border checkpoint was completed in time for the July deadline and is ready to go, but the state-of-the-art new facility stands empty.
With the government currently considering using technology to create a digital border system for most goods in the future, the port believes the building could be largely redundant.
The border control post was originally designed to carry out 50,000 random checks a year on goods such as meat, fish, cheese, vegetables, fruit and timber.
The building has sterile refrigerators and freezers with a temperature of -21C. It was to be staffed by 67 officials, including veterinarians, technical staff and port staff.
Unlike other ports in the country, Portsmouth is owned by a local council, which uses profits to fund services.
Although he received £17.1 million from the government, he still had to borrow £7.8 million to cover the total cost of building the facility. Ongoing operational costs also place a heavy demand on resources.
“It costs a million pounds a year to run it, which was supposed to be funded by the people who use it – now the government says no one needs to use it. How am I supposed to get a million pounds a year out of it? It has to come from the council tax payers here in Portsmouth,” said Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Liberal Democrat leader of Portsmouth City Council.
“The government told us we had to build it, it told us the exact specifications that had to be built. Now I have to find the £7.8m they won’t fund even though they ordered us to build it. other services that residents rely on will have to be cut, and that’s really annoying.”
He says he is considering taking legal action against the government along with other ports.
“We have already consulted with lawyers and have already talked with other ports – this is their project and they should pay for it. The government should sort out this mess.”
The Government’s Ports Infrastructure Fund paid out £200 million in grants for 41 border checkpoints at ports, stations and airports in December 2020. However, the fund was significantly overpaid, with the UK Major Ports Association estimating that the ports themselves paid an extra £100m to get the work done on time.
The Cabinet says the decision not to introduce new controls yet will save traders up to £1bn and help deal with cost of living pressures.
Some businesses are excited about the move. Simon Lane is the managing director of Fruco, a Sussex-based importer of fresh fruit and vegetables from Europe.
“Honestly, it’s music to my ears. The fewer restrictions and hoops we have to jump through and hurdles we have to jump through basically means we have lower costs. And if we have lower costs, we can pass that on to our customer base. “
But Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, says it was all a colossal waste of money and effort.
“If they had decided two or three years ago that we would have no checks and balances or only limited checks and balances and targeted processes at our borders, then we wouldn’t have to go to the effort and expense of creating these facilities.
“It was a very frustrating time for us to go through the process of getting a building permit, recruiting and appointing contractors, even hiring staff.
“Industry and government have worked well together to build these facilities at such a pace that we’re told they won’t be needed and potentially move to a completely different arrangement. We are left with these effectively white elephants in our ports – the industry has been left reeling and we need action from the government.”
A cabinet statement said: “We are always open to looking at new ways to reduce the burden on traders, ease the flow at borders and reduce costs to help traders with cost of living pressures.
“This is why the remaining EU import controls will no longer be in place this year, saving UK businesses up to £1 billion in annual costs. Instead, traders will continue to transport their goods from the EU to the UK as they do now. The port industry across the country supports our decision.
“We are currently working with ports, including the Port of Portsmouth, on a case-by-case basis to assess the impact of the July decision on import controls and address any issues or concerns they may have. This includes finding ways to avoid unnecessary additional capital expenditure. and minimize running costs.”