the large Brexit border posts that may never be fully used

<span>Portsmouth councilor Gerald Vernon-Jackson said: “This has been incredibly poorly handled.</span><span>Photo: Alicia Canter/The Guardian</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ CB752ADFC037″ data src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ b752adfc037″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Portsmouth councilor Gerald Vernon-Jackson: ‘This has been incredibly poorly handled’.Photo: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“It’s a monumental white elephant, just painted black,” says Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Portsmouth City Council’s cabinet member for transport, standing outside the £23 million warehouse, which was completed two years ago.

The 8,000 square meter facility at Portsmouth International Port – Britain’s second busiest cross-Channel terminal – is home to the Border Control Post (BCP). It is one of more than 100 registered BCPs and will be the place where many food and plant products entering from the EU through Portsmouth will be checked when post-Brexit import rules come into force on April 30.

Filled with expensive loading equipment and refrigeration systems, the site has 14 unloading docks, where trucks are expected to be examined, and 22 processing rooms, where plant and meat products will be hand-checked for disease by government inspectors.

But despite millions of pounds being pumped into the south coast project, half the site will remain empty and unused when it comes into use next month, and the council is seeking a £6 million reimbursement of the construction costs from the government.

“When we built this, it was designed to the exact specifications the government wanted under its previous Border Operating Model. Now we expect to use only seven bays and ten rooms,” said Mike Sellers, director of the port.

The problems in Portsmouth have been repeated to varying degrees in Britain, with millions of pounds spent on facilities that may be only partially used. Unlike most ports across the country, which are privately owned, Portsmouth is municipally owned, meaning the authority absorbs the associated costs.

“You will see similar situations at a number of other roll-on-roll-off ports across the country,” said Richard Ballantyne, the chief executive of the British Ports Association.

Since the government first announced that it would control imports of products of plant and animal origin after Brexit, ministers have changed their minds about the scope of these controls. This has meant that the amount of goods expected to pass through BCPs such as Portsmouth has decreased, while the amount of excess space in these facilities has increased.

“It was built to handle between 50 and 80 vehicles per day: we now expect to handle just half a dozen when it opens,” Sellers added.

When Britain 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.

Britain is now following suit. The certification system is already in place and inspections on high- and medium-risk imports will begin next month.

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

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

Ballantyne says a condition for funding was that BCPs met government specifications under the original Border Operating Model. In April 2022, amid fears that the controls would contribute to food inflation, the then Brexit Chances Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg confirmed that the government would change the plan and come up with a more targeted control regime.

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

Ballantyne says the problem is that most ports had the infrastructure in place by the time the changes were implemented, meaning many were left with facilities that will be much larger than necessary.

But this is not the case everywhere. At Sevington, the internal border checkpoint that will control imports through the Port of Dover, there are concerns that it is not large enough.

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

At Portsmouth’s BCP you can see it has the opposite problem, with ‘Keep Out’ signs on changing rooms, offices and huge loading docks that will remain empty well beyond April. However, it still costs the council £800,000 a year to run, and £1.8 million in staff.

“We’re starting to look at a longer-term solution to drive down operating costs based on the volumes coming through the BCP now,” Sellers said. “That solution could be to build a new, much smaller BCP and try to generate some form of revenue from this facility.” He suggests it could be completely demolished to make way for more profitable commercial properties.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says the new border controls are being introduced gradually to protect the country’s biosecurity. It added that it provided £200 million to ports and that it was up to each BCP to determine 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 resulted in Portsmouth and other BCPs being mothballed for years as they have been unable to recoup costs.

When the checks eventually arrive, the ports will be able to recoup these costs through a common use tax, which will be levied on companies that use them. But while there is still just over a month left for the checks to arrive, the government is yet to finalize details of what it will charge its own BCPs, which will impact commercial ports.

Marco Forgione, director general of the Institute of Export and International Trade, says: “The uncertainty this causes doesn’t just affect exporters and importers: it extends to commercially managed BCPs, which can only determine their prices and tariff structures if they know exactly what the government costs will be.”

Geraint Evans, the chief executive of UKMPG, says the government is “reducing the fines” to help operators understand costs.

He said: “Advanced markets are price sensitive and we maintain our clear position that anything other than full cost recovery of the initial investment in the items and operating costs would be unfair, potentially distorting a level playing field.”

For Vernon-Jackson, it’s just another BCP-related headache to add to a long list. “Regardless of whether you think Brexit is a good or bad idea, this has been incredibly poorly handled,” he says.

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