FUTURE OF THE PORT OF SOUTHAMPTON

House of Commons – 18 January 2012

Dr Julian Lewis: This is the first time I have had the pleasure of participating in a Westminster Hall debate under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate you on that, just as I congratulate the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (John Denham) on securing this important debate.

So far, we have seen an interesting division of labour. The right hon. Gentleman concentrated in great detail, as he had to do, on the process of the application. My hon. Friends the Members for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) and for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) concentrated to a considerable extent on the importance of the port of Southampton to the wider region. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Alan Whitehead) and my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) emphasised the magnitude of the task of accommodating container ships that can carry as many as 13,000 units and of transporting those units, when offloaded, to the hinterland within our country.

My role, therefore, towards the end of the debate is to try to show why this issue – or, not to overstate the case, this dispute – is different from other disputes that have taken place in the past and particularly the dispute over the plans that Associated British Ports had for many years, and has not entirely abandoned, to build a huge container port at Dibden Bay in my constituency, on the opposite side of Southampton Water to the existing container terminal. Hon. Members from that part of the country will be well aware that there was a six-year campaign to resist the Dibden Bay port development, culminating in a year-long planning inquiry, which finally decided to recommend – the Government of the day, to their credit, accepted this – that that development should not go ahead.

There is a complete difference between the situation in which we were fighting against the Dibden Bay development, and the obstructiveness that has confronted ABP over the current development, which entirely conforms to what we said at the time. That is that the container terminal in Southampton, run by ABP, had the potential to be expanded, to have its capacity increased and to grow as the size and volume of container traffic continues to grow.

At the time of the earlier dispute, ranged against ABP were not just the MP for New Forest East, which is entirely to be expected, given an MP’s responsibility to his constituents, but all sorts of national, environmentally concerned bodies: Natural England or whatever it was called at the time, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – you name it, they were against it. Where is that cacophony of objection to the development of berths 101 and 102? Is it being suggested that great harm will be done to the natural environment or the habitat? As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North emphasised, the main concern is about migratory salmon. That is not to do with the development having a destructive effect: it is simply a question of timing the development so that the salmon can migrate in the normal way, and the piling and the preparation of the quay wall can go ahead.

There is nothing like the same level, quality, type or scale of objection on environmental grounds to what is proposed. On the contrary, the port is doing what the port, with the greatest respect – I say that to the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen – should have done at the time when the extremely destructive proposal to build at Dibden Bay was originally made. The port proposes to take its existing footprint, to modernise it, to do a modest dredge and to enable the larger generation of ships to dock there safely and securely. That is precisely the way in which an important port should be able to increase its capacity – without doing any harm whatever to the natural environment and without causing much concern, if any, to the people who live in the area.

The difference is, therefore, fuelled not by environmental objections but by commercial ones. ABP could similarly be accused of applying double standards regarding its commercial objections to cruises being allowed to start and end at the cruise terminal in Liverpool. However, there is no real comparison, because the objections from the city of Southampton and ABP to the proposals for Liverpool – to their credit, Liverpool MPs have been present in force today to defend the interests of their city – have been based on the fact not that there would be competition between Liverpool and Southampton for the cruise liner trade, but that Liverpool received £20 million of public money to develop a cruise terminal as a port of call, not a port at which cruises should start and end. That money was given specifically on the condition that the cruise terminal would be restricted to that purpose, and within a year of the cruise terminal’s being finished, the request was being made to tear up the condition without repaying all the money. I will not dwell on that, because we know that the argument is about to be settled one way or another, although we do not know which way.

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North): Was there not a great deal of public investment in Southampton before denationalisation? The port has enjoyed a lot of public investment over many years, so is it not a bit ironic that Members are complaining about public investment when Southampton has had so much?

Dr Lewis: That is a neat argument, but it would have a little more force if the port of Liverpool were not owned privately by Peel Ports. One should not compare what happened to Southampton before it was privately owned with what is happening to Liverpool when it is privately owned. It was a nice try, however, and I give the hon. Gentleman full credit for it.

In the spirit of consensus we have in the debate, I must acknowledge – I think ABP acknowledges this as well – that Hutchison Ports has had a bad deal. More than one local Member has ably made the point that Hutchison Ports feels that it was treated unfairly in comparison with other ports, so it has been making a point of saying that if it does not get fair treatment, it will put a spanner in the works so that other people do not get fair treatment either. I had some friendly and helpful interactions with Hutchison Ports at the time of the Dibden Bay dispute, and I say to the company that it has made its point effectively, but it would be carrying things too far to try to make it again.

Time is of the essence, not only in this debate but in terms of the need to make a decision. I conclude by saying that if the debate has focused Ministers’ attention – and, through Ministers, the attention of the Marine Management Organisation – on the need to conclude this over-long process as soon as possible, it will have achieved its objective.