Next to Portsmouth International Port’s container terminal, a few hundred yards from the water’s edge, stands a new high-tech border checkpoint.
Built over the last 18 months at a cost of £25million, a cost shared by taxpayer and port owner Portsmouth City Council, the high specification facility is expected to be in its inaugural week of use , managing post-Brexit controls on imports of animal, plant and forestry products from the EU.
The building, however, is empty and silent, following the government’s decision in April to delay, probably for good, the introduction of physical inspections of fresh meat, fruit, vegetables and plants from the EU. .
The installation was completed ahead of the government’s previous and much-delayed July 1 start date for the new border measures.
The government is currently working on a new operating model for imports – due to be published in the autumn and to come into force at the end of 2023 – following the announcement in late April by Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg that all border controls and documents would be digitized.
The decision has left ports such as Portsmouth counting the cost and wondering what to do with their impressive but redundant multi-million pound white elephants.
The British Ports Association (BPA), an industry lobby group, calculates that at least £450m of taxpayers’ money has been spent on these new, now mostly unwanted border control facilities .
This includes the £300million spent on buildings at the ports, as well as around £250million spent by the government on the construction of 10 inland border facilities, in places such as Dover and Holyhead where it does not there’s no room for a checkpoint next to the terminal. These buildings will be difficult to reallocate.
“It’s designed specifically for government inspections, nothing else,” said Portsmouth International Port Manager Mike Sellers.
“The cheapest option would be to tear it down. It occupies two acres of operational land; we are not lucky enough to have a lot of land, so it is a big problem for us in terms of operations.
The port would have earned money from the border checkpoint by levying fees on importers for checks on goods. As part of the grant fund agreement agreed with the government, Sellers said the port is currently unable to use the facility for other business reasons.
Even if it were allowed, it would be time-consuming and expensive to reconfigure it for another use.
Portsmouth, along with 40 other ports, have received £200m funding for new checkpoints through the government port infrastructure funds. However, this was oversubscribed, leading to the ports themselves paying around £100m to make up the shortfall.
Portsmouth, the UK’s second busiest cross-Channel port, applied for £32m in funding and received £17.1m.
He then changed his plans to cut costs, but Portsmouth City Council took out a loan to cover the £7.8m shortfall.
Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson said he “has been left to foot the government bill” and faces loan and interest repayments at a time of tight budgets.
“The most serious issue is the phenomenal cost the board has had to absorb,” Vernon-Jackson said. “We have no way of recovering the costs and no offers of financial support from the government.”
The port estimates it will cost £1m a year to keep the facility running, even in a mothballed state.
Built to handle “high risk” products such as meat, as well as plants and trees, the Portsmouth facility has 14 truck docks, as well as sterile and airlocked quarantine areas, designed to prevent cross-contamination between different categories of goods. .
Nearly 70 workers, including port health personnel, veterinarians and port agents, were to work at the facility, checking cargo 365 days a year, alongside officials from the government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency and the Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Port health officers had already been recruited.
When the Guardian visited on Tuesday, workers were laying the final paving stones on the exterior of the building. Inside, the freezers – which would have been used to store meat products during the verification process – were tested and operating at a chilly -20°C (-4°F).
Stephen Morgan, the Labor MP for Portsmouth South, wrote to Rees-Mogg expressing concern over public money wasted on building border control facilities that may not be needed.
Rees-Mogg said in response that the government would work with the port to “identify ways to minimize these costs or recover costs, where possible”.
The Guardian understands that government officials have visited the Portsmouth facilities in recent days, while ministers consider other potential uses for the border facilities.
Portsmouth City Council is asking ministers to repay the initial funding shortfall and make it clear to them whether border checkpoints will ever be needed.
When the government announced its reversal on the introduction of import controls, Rees-Mogg said it was to avoid imposing additional costs on UK businesses and consumers during a cost crisis. life.
“The decision to postpone and redesign sanitary and phytosanitary controls is probably the right one for the freight industry and the economy,” said BPA chief executive Richard Ballantyne.
“But from the port operator’s point of view, it happened two years too late.”