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Mixed views from ports industry on business outlook

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The British Ports Association (BPA), the national body for ports and harbours, is today publishing its latest Business Confidence survey of UK ports sector and port professionals.

Despite recent supply chain pressures and energy and economic concerns, the BPA's survey very much highlights a ‘business as usual’ activity amongst UK port operators, as well as assessing the levels of confidence amongst decision-makers within ports. 

The data reveals that most ports are at least tentatively confident about their business outlook in the coming 12 months, though a quarter does not feel confident at all. 

47.3% report that their business performances had improved since this time last year, while 31.6% report that their revenues has fallen.

However compared to activities pre-pandemic, this time two years ago, over half of the port executives surveyed report that revenues were down. That said, 93% said ports would be investing in either new business services, property or infrastructure, in the coming 12 months.

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The results reflect a duality of two overriding moods amongst the industry - one of optimism and opportunity - and another of caution and uncertainty. When asked to summarise their outlook for 2021-22 in a word or sentence, the words ‘positive’ and ‘uncertain’ were the most popular responses, both mentioned in equal measure. These were followed by mention of ‘opportunities’ and ‘caution’.

The survey also looked at what ports are thinking about and what the challenges would be for the coming year. Of the top concerns cited by ports, Brexit was the most common answer by far. This was followed by a lack of investment, which was frequently reported by smaller ports in particular, as some noted difficulties accessing investment to revitalise infrastructure. Also climate change, port congestion, a lack of HGV drivers, the NI Protocol and the future of fishing industry were also common themes of concern.

Commenting, Richard Ballantyne, Chief Executive, at the British Ports Association said: 
“This survey indicates a mixed picture for the outlook of UK ports, characterised by cautious optimism for the end of 2021 and into 2022. It is perhaps not surprising that amongst the top concerns of UK port executives for the next 12 months are Brexit and port congestion, as well as the shortage of HGV drivers.

However, despite uncertainty and volatility experienced by the ports industry over the last 18 months, three-quarters of ports are confident about their business over the next year. What is clear, is that our ports continue to deliver a thriving and competitive independent sector, with 93% investing in new services, property or infrastructure.”

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Survey results:

• When asked how ports feel about the general economic climate in the coming 12 months, most ports feel positive, with 49.1% reporting that they hold a positive outlook but only 3.5% feeling ‘very positive’. 31.6% feel ‘neither positive or negative’ about the economic climate, 15.8% feel ‘negative’ and but no respondents feel ‘very negative’.

• Regarding how ports feel about their business outlook in the coming 12 months, most feel ‘somewhat confident’ (64.9%), 10.5% feel very confident, 21.1% feel ‘not so confident’ and 3.5% feel ‘not at all confident’.

• 36.8% of ports are hiring additional people in the coming quarter (over and above their usual staff headcount), while 59.6% are not.

• 96.5% of ports are not making any redundancies in the coming quarter, while 3.5% are.

• When asked whether they are investing in new business services, property or infrastructure in the coming quarter (relative to the size of the business), 31.6% of ports note that they are investing a ‘substantial amount’, 26.3% note a ‘moderate amount’, 31.6% note a ‘small amount’ and 7% note they are not investing at all.

• There was a relatively even split across all responses when ports were asked if their revenue has changed since this time last year (Q3 2020), 17.5% of ports say revenue is ‘up significantly’, 29.8% say revenue is ‘up slightly’ and 21.1% say revenue is ‘in line’ with where it was last year. 15.2% say that it is ‘down slightly’ and 16.4% say that it is ‘down significantly’.

• When the same question was posed regarding revenue this time two years ago (Q3 2019), 12.3 % of ports say revenue is ‘up significantly’, 19.3% say revenue is ‘up slightly’ and 15.8% say revenue is ‘in line’ with where it was two years ago. 19.3% say that it is ‘down slightly’ and 31.6% say that it is ‘down significantly’.

• Ports were also asked whether they find it difficult to recruit certain roles because of skills availability, 63.2% said yes, 36.8% said no. For those that answered yes, the most commonly cited areas being hard to recruit were engineering roles, followed by harbour masters and maintenance workers. Of the remaining responses, marine-focused roles were also frequently mentioned, as well as manual operations, including stevedores and plant operatives.

• When asked what external factors are top concerns for ports at present, Brexit was the most common answer by far, followed by a lack of investment and port congestion. Climate change, the NI Protocol and the fishing industry were also common themes. While some remaining answers mentioned the lack of HGV drivers.

• When asked to summarise their outlook for 2021-22 in a word or sentence, the words ‘positive’ and ‘uncertain’ were the most popular responses, both mentioned in equal measure. These were followed by mention of ‘opportunities’ and ‘caution’.

The full results can be viewed here.

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