Leaders of the UK’s £116 billion maritime sector gathered at Liverpool Town Hall for the Mersey Maritime Maritime Exchange conference, where the future of the industry was discussed. Reporting by Tony McDonough
The British maritime industry is ready and willing to lead the world in growth, innovation, diversity and decarbonisation over the next 30 years.
That was the clear message from national maritime industry leaders who gathered at Liverpool Town Hall for the fourth annual Maritime Exchange Conference organized by the regional organization Mersey Maritime and Maritime UK.
There were a number of key announcements. These included a new £2.4 million seafarer welfare fund, a high-level trade mission to Washington to attract investors to Liverpool City Region Freeport, and a new project to improve River Mersey connectivity.
Leading personalities from the business, government and academic worlds attended the packed event. It was sponsored by Expleo, Nautilus International, Liverpool John Moores University, Royal HaskoningDHV and the Royal Navy. His focus was government. Maritime 2050 strategy that outlines the future of the sector in the next three decades.
Mersey Maritime chief executive Chris Shirling-Rooke said UK plc had a “fantastic opportunity” to harness the dynamism and innovation of the UK maritime sector to become a global industrial powerhouse.
And there were warnings. Collaboration was key, as was a willingness to move quickly to invest and innovate. The government was urged to back his words with real money and regulation to protect professions such as seafarers. Above all, the message was that it was critical that people be put front and center as the industry moved forward.
Ahead of the conference, both Maritime UK and Mersey Maritime published an updated analysis detailing how shipping was now worth £116bn to the UK economy each year. In the Liverpool City region, the industry was valued at £5bn, 20% more than previous estimates. Across Merseyside, it supports more than 48,000 jobs.
The Minister for Shipping, Robert Courts, delivered the conference opening address via video link. He said that maritime transport was “the engine that sustains the country and drives its economic growth.”
Maritimo, he added, had faced the “greatest challenge it has ever faced” in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, describing the industry’s response as “magnificent”. Courts said: “Despite this challenge, the goods continued to flow.”
He announced a £2.4m package to support the welfare of seafarers and said the Government was launching a new “recovery roadmap”, setting out actions to help the sector recover from the effects of the pandemic.
“We must never forget that people are the lifeblood of the maritime industry,” said Mr. Courts. “We need the right people in the right positions with the right skills. Now is the time to be ambitious.”
Mr Courts also referred to the nine point plan published by the Government in March which sought to provide greater protections for seafarers. This was in response to P&O Ferries’ decision to lay off 800 workers.
However, later during the conference, Mark Dickinson, general secretary of the seafarers’ union, Nautilus International, criticized Mr Courts. Dickinson said the government’s proposals to protect workers didn’t go far enough.
He said P&O’s actions had “pushed a hole” in the government’s strategy for the UK maritime industry. And he urged the government to avoid a “race to the bottom” when it comes to conditions and pay for seafarers.
“Maritime 2050 it is a strategy that we fully support and in which we are partners. But P&O has put Maritime 2050 in grave danger by keeping young men from a career at sea. It has fueled a race to the bottom in terms of seafarers’ wages and conditions.”
Following Courts was Victoria Race, deputy director of maritime policy at the Department for Transport. She spoke of “almost universal support” for the Maritime 2050 strategy across the industry.
He said industry efforts focused on decarbonisation, skills and diversity, and innovation and technology would drive not only the UK economy as a whole, but also drive the regeneration of our coastal communities.
“We need to retain our competitive advantage,” he added. “It is a fantastic job that the regional clusters do. We don’t always realize how valuable they are.”
After opening speeches, the conference featured a series of panel discussions. The themes were the environment, people and skills, regional growth, and technology and innovation.
These panels also produced major announcements of their own. During the discussion on regional growth, Liverpool City Region Freeport Director John Lucy revealed that the interest from potential global investors in the freeport had been “phenomenal”.
On the back of this, he revealed that there would be a high level trade mission to Washington DC later this year in conjunction with Mersey Maritime. He added: “The Liverpool City Region will lead the race to attract international investors.”
In another exciting announcement, Thomas White, director of maritime and port services at Connected Places Catapult, revealed a new project in partnership with Mersey Maritime and leading consultancy Royal Haskoning DHV.
He outlined a “vision for our renewed connectivity across waterways in the UK regions” with the Moving on the Mersey project centered on the River Mersey. Its aim is to find ways to make better use of the River Mersey for goods, tourists and travellers.
And, during the people and skills panel, Gary Jeffreys of shipping giant Maersk said it intended to create more than 4,000 jobs by 2025 as part of its transformation into a full-service logistics business. The company currently employs 300 people at its Liverpool city center base.
“We need to make sure we have a diverse workforce to manage this transformation,” he said. “Maersk is committed to diversity and we need to recruit people from all sectors of the community to come work with us.”
During the environment discussion, Kevin Brown, Bibby Marine Contracts and Business Leader, outlined his ambitions to create zero-carbon offshore support vessels. Bibby Line Group is one of the oldest companies in Liverpool and has a strong focus on decarbonisation.
Their WaveMaster Zero C project is a collaboration that includes MarRI-UK, shipbuilder Damen and Lloyds Register. He had obtained some development funds from the Government. Brown said more support would be needed if the company was going to build a prototype.
This point was underscored at the end of the conference in an impassioned speech by Sir Michael Bibby, Chairman of the Bibby Line Group. He said: “I am a big believer in competition. It forces companies to define their USP and show that they can offer something different and better than their competitors.
“If you can add more value, you will be successful. We can produce a zero-carbon ship in two years, but it will cost money. And we have to move on. If we don’t, the rest of the world will and just sail on without us.
“We can be competitive, but unless we get the seed funding, nothing will happen. We cannot afford to wait six or 12 months. We need to be the leaders in this technology and we need to do it now.”
Other speakers on the panel include: “It’s a strategy that we fully support and are partners in. But P&O has put Maritime 2050 in grave danger but keeping young men from a career at sea. It has fueled a race to the bottom in terms of seafarers’ wages and conditions.”
Another speaker on the panel was Captain Rachael Smallwood, the Royal Navy’s head of human performance. She spoke about the big cultural shift within Britain’s senior service that had changed the approach from being “task-based to being people-oriented”.
This, he explained, resulted in a transformational effect on performance and capability among people at all levels of the Royal Navy. She added: “We have created an environment that allows people to thrive. People are now more physically and psychologically resilient.”
Labor MP Mike Kane, Shadow Maritime Minister, concluded the conference with his address to delegates. He welcomed the introduction of the Freeport city region and rejected the idea that it will only displace jobs and investment from elsewhere.
“I am the MP for the area that covers Manchester Airport and about eight years ago the government announced that Airport City was offering tax breaks,” Kane said.
“I have seen 10,000 jobs in my constituency with large logistics companies coming to that site. There are benefits to be gained from this and we really have to make sure that this happens. Freeports will not displace jobs. They were new jobs that were created”.
Kane said there will still be challenges for the north in terms of investment and connectivity. He was referring to Daniel Adamson, the 19th-century engineer and industrialist who was the driving force behind the Manchester Ship Canal.
Opened in 1885, the canal provided a link from the Mersey Estuary to Port Salford, which is still in much use today. Adamson, Kane said, was a visionary who came up with the concept of a northern power plant more than a century after it became political policy.
“He envisioned a northern region from the Mersey Estuary to the Humber Estuary,” Kane added. “We want to see better east-west connections as well as north-south. HS2 is excellent for my constituency.
“But the whole region is not going to benefit from that. We still have challenges here in the north with the railways, with capacity, with freight, with logistics. And it’s about building that northern capacity that Daniel Adamson talked about 150 years ago.”
Kane thanked the shipping industry for its efforts to keep the UK supplied during the pandemic. He said: “I want to thank you all for keeping us fed during the pandemic; they were extraordinarily brave and innovative.”