Richard North, 22/12/2018  

I don't have a lot of time for ITV's Robert Peston – not that that will come as any surprise to my regular readers. But even he has his uses occasionally, in this case having published a short piece headed: "Whitehall's no-deal Brexit naïveté".

In this, Peston identifies what he calls "considerable straw-clutching in Whitehall and Westminster about the impact of a 'no-deal' Brexit". He gives as an example a "respected and experienced" minister who took from the Commission's contingency plan the idea that, in the event of a no-deal, the ports of Dover and Folkestone would be kept open "for nine months with no checks".

It turns out that the minister had misunderstood the concession allowing road hauliers to continue operating for nine months, reading it as a waiver on customs checks. But, as confirmed by a Commission official, there will be no such softening or sweetening of a no-deal. This simple concession would not avert crippling bottlenecks at Dover, and the transformation of Kent - in the words of a more realistic official - into the "world's largest lorry park".

The trouble is, though, that the straw-clutching is not by any means confined to "respected and experienced" ministers. Even yesterday we had the pompous Fraser Nelson asserting in the Spectator and the Telegraph that a no-deal Brexit "would be a risk, but it's the best option we have left".

For sure, the prospect of accepting Mrs May's deal is singularly unattractive, but if one is to argue for rejecting in in favour of a "no deal", as Nelson would have us do, then it should be on the basis of the best possible evidence.

Yet, in the minuscule growth that qualifies as Mr Nelson's mind, he has convinced himself that, while a no-deal would bring disruption, "it'd be temporary". Furthermore, says the straw-clutcher, "talk of chaos at Calais needs to be put in the context of French officials saying they'd need to stop no more than one in every 100 lorries".

It would seem, therefore, that Fraser Nelson is prepared to gamble the economic well-being of the entire nation on a single, slender factoid, comprising speculation by a single French regional politician. This was Xavier Bertrand, president of the Northern Hauts-de-France region, who back in November was suggesting that "we could ask for exemptions from the European Commission to reduce customs and regulatory controls based on risk analysis".

With the publication of the EU's contingency plan, though, any prospect of such "flexibility" surely evaporated when the Commission stated that: "All relevant EU legislation on imported goods and exported goods will apply as of the withdrawal date".

Mr Nelson, however, likes to pretend that there is uncertainty about the disruption, asserting that "it's hard to tell" what the scale might be, "because of hysteria, claim and counter-claim".

The one thing you can be absolutely sure about, though, is that Mr Nelson has not visited this remarkably hysteria-free blog. Had he done so, back in February 2017, where I attempted to quantify the scale of the disruption which he finds so uncertain.

There, I estimated that there would be about 260,000 truck-loads of UK-produced foodstuffs per annum entering the mainland via France, with a typical requirement for a 20 percent inspection rate, mandated by EU law. That amounts to over 50,000 inspections per annum, when the nearest inspection facility is in Dunkirk and its annual capacity is limited to 5,000 consignments.

As it happens, my estimates were remarkably close to those in an official report produced for Defra in 2012 entitled: "Resilience of the food supply to port disruption". Although published four years before the referendum, this gives a remarkably clear insight into the effects of disruption in the nation's ports, with several detailed annexes, including one on Dover and the Channel Tunnel.

In terms of statistical data, the report estimates that about a third of the trucks taking the Dover Calais route are carrying foodstuffs. Given an inspection rate of 20 percent, on my reckoning that alone would account for one in every 15 trucks being stopped for a contents inspection. Then, there are a huge range of checks that would be applied to non-food consignments.

The point at issue here is that, while Dover port and the Channel Tunnel account for only seven percent of inbound traffic coming through the country's major ports, it is estimated that 26 percent of the UK's total food imports from EU sources move through the Dover Port/Tunnel corridor.

Crucially, though, these two routes have specialised in handling accompanied trailers – the so-called ro-ro traffic – accounting for 75 percent of all the accompanied trailers carrying freight between the UK and the Continent, Scandinavia and Ireland.

But what is so startling about the report is the way it illustrates how specialised the Dover/Tunnel corridor is, and how difficult it would be to divert freight from them to other ports. If disruption through one, or the other route (or both) occurs over an extended period, the report says, solutions are not easily found. For the purpose built Dover ferries and for the Freight Shuttle trains there are effectively no alternative options.

The reasons why this should be the case are not difficult to discern. Firstly, and most obviously, this is the shortest of all the routes from the UK, allowing maximum utilisation of the ships on the run. But it does not stop there.

Dover port is equipped with seven, expensive, double-deck ramps which facilitate loading or unloading simultaneously from two decks (pictured). These are "male" ramps, which means that they connect with the ships, which themselves do not need to be equipped with their own ramps. That allows the ships to be fitted for stern and bow access, affording "straight through" loading and unloading, further speeding up port handling.

As a result, while there are 41 UK mainland ports, equipped with a total of 151 ro-ro berths, these manage only 675 sailings a week, or 43 percent of the market. Dover, by contrast, managed 365 sailings (at the time the report was prepared), that one port accounting for a 23 percent share of the market. The Tunnel adds a further 536 departures, taking a 34 percent market share.

This frequency of departures makes the corridor extremely attractive for just-in-time deliveries, permitting a "turn up and go" operation. This eliminates the need for transport operators to factor in additional time to ensure that fixed bookings are met in the event of traffic delays.

Furthermore, the extent of the facilities renders them less prone to the sort of disruption that can occur when facilities are limited, while the port and tunnel are complementary in being able to absorb traffic from each other in the event the either are disrupted.

Therefore, should the corridor become inoperable because of Brexit, there are no other ports which could accommodate the traffic and nor could they handle the specialist ships which are used on the route. There would have to be a modal shift, from accompanied loads to "lo-lo" container traffic, taking far longer and with considerably less flexibility. And immediately, shippers would be confronted with the global shortage of reefers (refrigerated containers), which could not be easily resolved.

In terms of Brexit, therefore, as long as ports such as Calais lack inspection facilities for foodstuffs (and other goods), it will not be possible for them to handle traffic from the Dover corridor. But, it would not be possible to transfer the traffic to other EU ports with inspection facilities, even if they existed.

Allowing for the scale of likely inspections, it is extremely unlikely that the infrastructure and staff could be ready inside 2-3 years and then there will be inbuilt delays in the system, as inspections are carried out. Route capacities will be drastically reduced, accompanied by substantial cost increases.

The alarming thing about all this, though, is that this information is already known to government, which commissioned the research for other reasons, but has the data it needs to predict the likely outcome of a "no deal" Brexit – at least as far as short sea shipping goes.  

When it comes to people such as Fraser Nelson, and his fellow straw clutcher, Mark Wallace, their superficial approach to their subject makes them truly despicable. Wallace, for instance, in a recent edition of The Sun argued that: "We must take Brexit doomsayers' claims that No Deal Brexit means our food exports will rot in trucks at Dover with a hefty fistful of salt".

"Most countries are quite practical", this fool asserts, which means that they "agree to trust each other's safety tests on goods rather than hold them up for costly extra testing at their ports". Thus, he tells us, a "no deal" Brexit "should not stop us from shaking hands on hundreds of other side deals that both sides could agree quite simply, and which would help both sides to square away". That, he writes, is what's called a "managed no deal".

Perhaps to encourage these facile commentators to perform better, we might think of adopting the Admiral Byng gambit. At the very least, it would reduce the number of straw-clutchers.

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