Ports today work in a very competitive environment. There are many reasons for this. The ports are chasing fewer ships: a single container ship in 2003 does the work that in the 1960s required a dozen conventional cargo ships. Because the ships are bigger, ports need to deepen their water access and provide bigger facilities. Many ports have lost their traditional trade, such as exporting coal, and have to compete for other cargoes. Owners and shippers expect their ships to be turned round in the shortest possible time.
UK ports also face competition from Europe. A container unloaded from an ocean-going ship in Rotterdam can be hoisted onto a smaller ship or onto a train or truck and be in the UK next day. The motorway network means that goods can be carried very quickly, so a shipper does not necessarily use his nearest port.
`Seven Seas Bridge` container ship at Southampton Container Terminal
The British ports that have been most successful in competing for container traffic are Southampton and Felixstowe. They have had to continually expand to provide deeper water and bigger berths for container ships, which continue to grow in size. This has required expensive dredging of the approach channels. Extra quay space is needed to store containers because the ships cannot be kept waiting.
Plans for expansion have brought ports into conflict with bodies concerned about protecting the environment. For instance, it is argued that dredging may mean birds lose feeding grounds on mud banks. The port might respond by providing other areas for birds to feed, perhaps on what once were fields. There are also concerns about pollution. With more ships using the port, the chance of oil or dangerous cargo being spilt increases. On the other hand, water transport is easily the least harmful to the environment. It is very fuel efficient, reducing use of fossil fuel and minimising emission of greenhouse gases. Often, it falls to the government to make the difficult decision about letting port development go ahead.
Ports have a fascinating history, linked closely with trade, geography, inland transport and industry. They have a vital role in the country`s economy, and invariably become particularly important at times of war. They also have an exciting future, although not without controversy about their expansion.