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According to its satellite navigation display screen, the Land Rover in which the Financial Times is travelling has left dry land behind and is now deeply immersed in the waters of the Thames estuary.
Such is the pace of land reclamation at London Gateway, a vast port being constructed on the northern banks of the Thames estuary, that the imaging maps used by satnav providers have yet to catch up with the rapidly advancing coastline at this monumental infrastructure project.
The development promises not only to bring fresh hope to an area demoralised by the imminent closure of Coryton, the refinery it abuts on the Essex coast, but to transform the way goods are distributed in the UK.
Simon Moore, London Gateway chief executive, said: “The cost of distribution is only increasing as fuel prices and congestion continue to grow. So if you can make the ship do as much work as possible, that will reduce the time the cargo spends on the road. That is worth hundreds of millions of pounds to importers and exporters.”
The £1.5bn facility, owned by Dubai Ports World, lies 25 miles from London. With a quayside 2.7km long, it will be able to take up to six of the new generation of vast cargo ships, 400m long and capable of carrying more than 14,000 containers. When it opens towards the end of next year, its annual capacity of 3.5m TEU (20-foot equivalent units, a standard industry measure) will make it the country’s biggest port.
Just behind the berths, on an area that is now a huge building site, will lie a 9m sq logistics park – Europe’s biggest – where cargo owners, retailers and logistics companies may hold or process goods for onward despatch. If all goes to plan, many goods that are currently transported by lorry to depots elsewhere in the UK – often to be brought back to the south-east – will go directly to their owners.
Alan Braithwaite, chairman of LCP Consulting, a supply chain logistics consultancy, and visiting professor at Cranfield School of Management, said the port had the potential to be “transformational”. “We have UK supply chains designed around the golden triangle in the Midlands. Many goods are taken there and come back again. London Gateway addresses this with the port-centric idea of not moving things past where they need to go.”
The market has an appetite for more warehousing space in the south-east, he added. “We’re advising clients about putting capacity in the south-east for their operations and there’s a serious shortage of appropriate sites because of planning issues.”
DP World, which operates 60 ports around the world, has yet to announce publicly any retailers or logistics companies as customers of the new site, but Mr Moore said the company was speaking to hundreds of companies in the UK and Asia, including high-street names, and the project had received “strong commercial interest and support”.
Its owners say the privately funded scheme will directly employ 12,000 and upwards of 30,000 indirectly, with no assistance from the taxpayer.
George Kieffer, vice-chairman for the South East Local Economic Partnership, said the development would be a boost for the area, which is reeling from the loss of about 900 jobs at the Coryton refinery. “Eastwards of Canary Wharf is not one of the most prosperous areas of the UK so a development like the port and particularly the ancillary logistics hub must be good news for productive and high value jobs.”
The project has undoubtedly created employment for ecological groups, several of which were hired to relocate the 350,000 voles, newts, badgers, snakes and other animals that the company found on the site.
But an unresolved question among local civic leaders and business people is whether the transport infrastructure linking the port with the capital and the south-east region will be capable of shouldering the additional burden of traffic it creates.
Cllr John Kent, leader of Thurrock council, called for the department of transport to address the problems around junctions 30 and 31 of the M25 – already a bottleneck for the region. “For people in Thurrock, when those junctions grind to a halt the whole borough backs up for 10 miles in every direction.”
A related bugbear is the congestion that routinely builds up around the tolls of the Dartford Crossing over the Thames.
John Dallaway, policy manager for Essex Chambers of Commerce, said the onus was on the government rather than DP World. “The Highways Agency is working to do away with tollbooths by introducing free flow technology, so you will pay in advance. But it should have been sorted out some time ago.”
Asked if broader uncertainty in the global economy – and particularly in Europe – will pose a threat, Mr Moore brushes off the suggestion, arguing that London Gateway’s capacity to handle the biggest ships in the world will settle the question. “We’re reconnecting the UK’s biggest economic zone directly with our biggest suppliers in China, south-east Asia and the Indian subcontinent. That’s a fantastic foundation on which you can serve the UK.”