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Vital vote in Europe for Belfast port

16 January 2006


DUP MEP, Jim Allister, has drawn attention to a vote in the European Parliament on Tuesday 17 January which could impact severely on the future of Belfast Port.  Referring to the proposed Port Services Directive, Mr Allister said:-


“An important vote will take place in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday 17th January, which could have serious implications for the port of Belfast.   If the EU Port Services Directive is approved then, in common with all ports in the EU, it will subject us to unnecessary and commercially restrictive practices which will damage the economic viability of Belfast Port.


The Directive’s aim is to liberalise the port services market, e.g. cargo handling and nautical services like piloting and tugs.  The UK port services market is already open and competitive, in Belfast alone over 30 licences have been granted to independent cargo handlers. In continental Europe things are much more monopolistic.


My primary concern is that the “one size fits all” solution which the Directive imposes will impede the rolling out of the Port of Belfast’s significant investment programme. Belfast handles 66% of all NI’s seaborne trade and indeed 25% of the entire island’s.  There are plans to invest £140M over the next 5 years to deliver modern terminals, extra container capacity and other infrastructure improvements.  As a Trust Port it is not publicly funded and, therefore, must make commercial deals capable of funding its expansion.  Given the high expenditure involved in these major improvements, contracts inevitably need to be long-term with the service providers – so as to spread the cost of the investment - , yet, this Directive will seek to curtail the length of such arrangements, thereby, threatening the investment programmes which are critical to the future and viability of the Port.


No doubt where monopolies reign elsewhere in Europe, for example, in cargo handling or piloting services, it is sensible to prise open that market by restricting the duration of such contracts and opening them up to competition, but it is foolish and unnecessary to apply the same requirements to the provision of long-term infrastructural projects, which are already the product of open contractual competition.


Developing port infrastructure is highly capital intensive, requiring long-term returns based on long-term contracts e.g. the new Stena Line terminal.  This Directive, if passed, would prevent such long-term contracts for the provision of port facilities by requiring a more frequent re-tendering process for the allocation of those facilities.  That would be unworkable and succeed only in impeding and stymieing the development of infrastructure at Belfast Port.  Thus, I will be voting against this Directive.


The Port Services Directive was originally proposed in 2001, it was then defeated in the Parliament in 2003, but the last Commission re-introduced it in 2004.  Now it comes again to the Parliament where hopefully it will suffer the same fate as before.


There is enormous reliance by Northern Ireland’s economy on the maintenance of a competitive and efficient port infrastructure. I, therefore, will use my vote in Strasbourg to reject this proposal whose effect would be so stultifying and regressive.”



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