Post-Brexit port congestion fears grow

By Aidan Fortune

- Last updated on GMT

Post-Brexit red tape is expected to put UK ports under more pressure
Post-Brexit red tape is expected to put UK ports under more pressure
Put simply, the UK is not self-sufficient when it comes to food. In fact, we don’t even make it halfway.

According to a recent House of Lords report on post-Brexit food prices and availability, 48.7% of British food is home-grown, 30.4% comes from the EU and the remainder comes from the rest of the world.

If a trade agreement cannot be negotiated between the UK and EU, Brexit is likely to result in an average tariff on food imports of 22%. While this would not equate to a 22% increase in food prices for consumers, prices paid at the checkout would certainly rise.

The Government could also be in a quandary when it comes to imports and tariffs. It could cut tariffs on all imported food, but imagine the uproar from the domestic food industry.

Of course, if tariffs are introduced on food imported from the EU, this could lead to opportunities for domestic products.

The National Pig Association is one of many trade bodies holding this view, saying: “Brexit could assist in increased production of British pig products.”​ Meanwhile, the Food Foundation estimates “it would be possible to increase the UK market share of 16 of our most popular fruit and vegetables”​.

Domestic production to expand

The UK Trade Policy Observatory suggests that domestic production “will expand under all Brexit scenarios, with this growth ranging from 0.9% under the soft European Economic Area membership Brexit to 9.2% under the pessimistic no-deals Brexit”​, although it did warn that “this growth in domestic production will come at the expense of higher domestic prices for consumers”​, taking us back to where we started.

Conversely, the Food Foundation argues increasing domestic production could “result in cheaper produce for the consumer in the long run, a potentially more resilient supply and, given the perishability of fresh produce, fewer food miles and better-quality products”​.

Aside from food prices, the report also highlights potential delays due to customs checks that would have to take place.

It’s not just EU food coming in that would have to be checked, but also from non-EU countries imported via the EU. Currently, these checks take place at other EU ports, but once the UK leaves Europe, we’re on our own.

This additional red tape will put UK ports under more pressure, especially as a British Chamber of Commerce survey found that 33% of businesses that could be affected by new customs procedures, still aren’t planning for checks and declarations between the UK and EU.

Delay and congestion fears

This is despite 29% of all respondents believing they will be impacted in terms of administration, costs or operations by delays or congestion at UK or European ports after Brexit. In a time-sensitive business such as food, even a half-day’s delay could be crucial.

Richard Christian, head of policy and communications at the Port of Dover, does offer up one solution – moving it down the road. “For the sake of UK plc, it is vital that fluidity at Dover and throughout the supply chain is maintained by keeping checks to a minimum, and any that need to be made are done away from the port.”

There are also bio-security concerns if the UK is to no longer use the EU’s Trade Control and Expert System (TRACES), which digitally tracks all animals and food that moves within the EU.

According to an Energy and Environment sub-committee meeting on the matter, £5.4m has been invested in the development of a domestic import control system to replace some of the functions of the EU TRACES system.

While it is positive to hear one department has plans for Brexit, trade talks need to complete before these are tested.

Less heartening is that, should the replacement system not be ready in time, contingency plans are “semi-automated”​, with paperwork options not being ruled out.

Where will prices hit hardest?

As detailed in the House of Lords report on food prices and availability, post-Brexit tariffs on food imported from the EU could average 22%. But what does that mean in real terms for food prices?

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has calculated that the likely increase in retail price attributable solely to tariffs is as much as 29% for beef, up to 32% for cheddar cheese, up to 18% for tomatoes and between 5–10% for broccoli.

The BRC said the reason for the range in increases is: “We do not know how domestic producers would react to price increases ... would they raise their prices or would they put more of their own product on the UK market if they faced tariffs to export to the EU?”

More conservative estimates

The UK Trade Policy Observatory is much more conservative in its estimates about food price increases.

It predicts post-Brexit price rises of 5.8% for meat products, 8.1% for dairy products, 4% for vegetables, 3.1% for fruit, 1.8% for bread and cereals and 1.5% for fish products.

Meanwhile, industry trade body Dairy UK estimates that the introduction of a World Trade Organization framework would push wholesale prices of cheese up by a third, with retail prices increasing by as much as 20%.

Related topics: Supply Chain

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