the big Brexit border posts that will never be fully used

<span>Portsmouth Councilor Gerald Vernon-Jackson: ‘This has been badly handled’.</span>Photo: Alicia Canter/The Guardian</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/″ data- src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Portsmouth Councilor Gerald Vernon-Jackson: ‘This has been incredibly badly handled’.Photo: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“It’s a big white elephant, just painted black,” says Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Portsmouth city council’s transport cabinet member, standing outside the £23m warehouse, which was completed two years ago.

The 8,000 square meter facility located in Portsmouth International Port – the UK’s second busiest cross-channel terminal – is home to its border control post (BCP). One of more than 100 registered BCPs, it is where many food and plant products coming through Portsmouth from the EU will be checked when post-Brexit import rules come into effect on 30 April.

Filled with expensive loading equipment and refrigeration systems, the site has 14 unloading bays, where trucks are expected to be examined, and 22 processing rooms, where government inspectors will manually check plants and meat products for disease.

But despite millions of pounds being poured into the south coast project, half the site will be left empty and unused when it comes into force next month, and the council is seeking £6m of the building costs to be repaid from the government .

“When we built this, it was designed to the exact specifications required by the government under the previous Border Operating Model. We now only expect to use seven bays and 10 staterooms,” says Mike Sellers, port director.

The difficulties at Portsmouth have been replicated to varying degrees across the UK, with millions of pounds spent on facilities that are only partially used. Unlike most ports across the country, which are privately owned, Portsmouth is council-owned, meaning the authority picks up the associated costs.

“You will find similar situations at a number of other roll-on-roll ports around the country,” says Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association.

Since the government first announced that it would check imports of products of plant and animal origin after Brexit, ministers have changed their minds about the scope of those checks. This has meant that the number of goods expected to pass through BCPs such as Portsmouth has decreased, and the number of redundant goods in those facilities has increased.

“It was built for 50 to 80 vehicles a day: now we’re only expecting to process half a dozen when it opens,” Sellers said.

When the UK left the single market in January 2021, the EU immediately began requiring health certificates for British meat, dairy and plant products, while also introducing physical inspections at EU borders.

The UK is now continuing. The certification scheme is already in place, and inspections of high and medium risk imports will begin next month.

In anticipation of these checks, 40 ports, including Portsmouth, have applied for the government’s £200m Port Infrastructure Fund in 2020 to build new infrastructure, or upgrade existing infrastructure. Newly built BCPs included three at Hull, Immingham and Killingholme on the Humber, at a cost of £70m, and a £15m BCP at the port of Purfleet in Essex.

But port owners have argued that the fund was not big enough, and that they had to cover the difference. Their trade association, the UK Major Ports Group (UKMPG), calculates that they have paid £100m to bridge the funding gap.

Ballantyne says it was a condition of funding that BCPs meet government specifications under their original Frontier Operating Model. However, in April 2022, fearing that the checks would add to food inflation, the then Brexit opportunities minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, confirmed that the government would change the plan and come up with a more targeted checking system.

This was replaced by the current system, the Threshold Target Operating Model (BTOM), which requires checks only on high and medium risk products.

Ballantyne says the problem is that most ports had built infrastructure by the time the changes were introduced, meaning many were left with facilities that will be far larger than needed.

But this is not the case everywhere – at Sevington, the inland border control post that will check imports coming through the Port of Dover, there are concerns that it is not big enough.

This week, the Port of Dover Health Authority warned that the facility may not be able to cope with scale, and that there were “significant capacity and design limitations”.

At BCP Portsmouth, you can see it has the opposite problem, with “Keep Out” signs on changing rooms, offices and huge loading bays that will remain empty well past April. However, it will cost the council £800,000 a year to operate, and staff £1.8m.

“We’re starting to look at the longer-term solution of how to reduce operating costs based on what’s coming through the BCP now,” Sellers says. “That solution could be building a new, much smaller BCP and trying to generate some kind of income from this facility.” He suggests that it could be completely demolished to make way for more profitable commercial premises.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says the new border controls are being gradually introduced to protect the country’s biosecurity. He says that he made £200m available to ports and that it was up to each BCP to decide how best to use that funding.

These financial pressures have been exacerbated by five separate delays in the implementation of new border rules, which have left Portsmouth and other BCPs out of business in recent years, unable to recover costs.

When the checks finally come in, the ports will be able to recover those costs through a common user charge, which will be charged to businesses that use them. But despite just over a month until the checks come in, the government is yet to finalize the details of what it will charge its own BCPs, affecting commercial ports.

Marco Forgione, Director General of the Institute for Export and International Trade, says: “The uncertainty this creates does not just affect exporters and importers: it extends to commercially run BCPs, who cannot set their prices and fix a charge structure until they can. know exactly what government fees will be involved.”

Geraint Evans, chief executive of UKMPG, says the government is “fine” to allow operators visibility of charges.

He says: “Sophisticated markets are price sensitive and we keep our position clear that anything other than a full recovery of the costs of the initial investment in jobs and operating costs would be unfair, and could be distorting what should be fair competition.”

For Vernon-Jackson, it’s just another BCP-related headache to add to a long list. “Whether you think Brexit is a good idea or a bad idea, this has been discussed very badly,” he says.

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