There are about 120 commercial ports in the United Kingdom. These include major all-purpose ports, such as London and Liverpool; ferry ports such as Dover; specialised container ports, such as Felixstowe, and ports catering for specialised bulk traffic, such as coal or oil. There are also a large number of smaller ports essentially catering for local traffic or specialising in particular sectors such as fishing or leisure boating.
The UK ports industry handles 95% of UK import and export by volume - about 500 million tonnes of freight per year - and around 22 million international passengers pass through UK ports each year. Despite the large number of ports in the UK, much of the freight traffic is concentrated among a comparatively small percentage, with the top 20 ports accounting for 88% of the total.
There are three main models of port ownership in the UK:
- Private ownership - This group includes ranges from ports owned by international groups (eg DP World and Hutchison Whampoa) to ports owned by private companies (eg the Bristol Port Company). The Government has no ownership interest in any of the ports in this sector, and all of their investment is privately financed on a commercial basis. All but two of UKMPG’s member ports belong in this category, which accounts for some two-thirds of the total tonnage handled in the UK.
- Trust ports - Trust ports, including the Port of London Authority and Belfast Harbour Commissioners, are independent statutory corporations managed by a board of trustees. They operate on a quasi-commercial basis, but they do not pay dividends as they have no shareholders. Any profits they make are retained in the undertaking. Trust ports operate entirely financially independently of Government. The trust ports sector accounts for about 25% of total tonnage.
- Local authority owned ports.
Some 118,000 people are directly employed in UK ports. In addition to being important modal hubs in the country’s transport system, many ports are centres of local economic activity. Industries such as oil refineries and power stations as well as a range of businesses are located in or near ports. Ports themselves are increasingly diversifying their activity into logistics and other value-added services. In 2013 the ports sector paid £2 billion in taxes into the UK exchequer and generated £7.7 billion in gross value added for the UK economy, according to a study by Oxford Economics.