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Short Straits – how resilient is the UK’s most important trade route?

Measuring just 21 miles at its narrowest point, the Short Straits between the Kent coast and northern France is by far the shortest distance between the UK and the European Continent.

And given the huge volume of goods that are transported between Dover and Calais every day it has grown to become by far the most important trade route between the UK and the EU.

To discuss the importance of ensuring trade resilience in the Short Straits, delegates from the Port of Dover, GetLink (Channel Tunnel), Kent County Council, cross-Channel ferry operators and both Houses of Parliament gathered in Westminster for a special Short Straits Summit, earlier this week (22 November 2021).

Chairing the roundtable discussion was Alex Veitch, Deputy Director – Public Policy, Logistics UK, who opened the discussion by welcoming delegates and summarising the key issues on the agenda.


First to speak was Natalie Elphicke MP, who represents the Dover and Deal constituency.

“We know that the Port of Dover and GetLink and the Short Straits should and are known as the most successful trading route across the entire country,” she said, “That’s why I particularly welcome the opportunity for us all to get together.”

Having secured over £100m of investment in border facilities and a business park and more than 400 jobs, Elphicke maintained that job and business dividends from the post-Brexit transition period were already being realised in the area.

On port-road resilience, she argued that the final part of the A2/M2 upgrade was of vital importance: “It is absolutely vital that we look at better trade resilience across Europe in my view as well as on our road infrastructure on our side of the Channel. I do want to see a strong and successful Short Straits route going forward that will remain the first and foremost route for our trading relationships across the country.”


It was then time to look at some hard data. Andy Meaney, a Partner at Oxera, an independent economics and finance consultancy commissioned by the Port of Dover, presented his company’s research on the economic importance of trade across the Short Straits.

“The Port of Dover is a significant part of the UK economy,” he said, “It is by far the largest and most important roll-on, roll-off freight port.”

Oxera’s research revealed that almost 60% of UK-EU trade in goods travels via the Short Straits, with an unmatched 12 crossings per hour.

Meaney concluded that the Port of Dover was an asset of strategic national importance and a key part of Global Britain – facilitating trade with the EU and further afield. He highlighted its resilience to temporary shocks – both in terms of its ability to recover from issues on the link itself, and its ability to step in and provide fast, frequent capacity when other ports are closed. This, he said, gave it the ability to support businesses across the UK.


Doug Bannister, Chief Executive of Port of Dover, was then invited to share his thoughts. Appointed Chief Executive in January 2019, he had three key messages to convey to delegates: “The market’s chosen, the route is proven and we have to change the lens.”

Describing the port as “a finely-tuned machine”, the port chief said that half of the freight that went through the port is destined north of London, with little remaining in Kent. “The market continues to choose this route because of its unrivalled, unparalled frequency, service, resilience," he argued, "So, the route is proven.”

During the UK’s exit from the European Union, the Short Straits attracted unprecedented media attention, with some commentators making dire predictions of port traffic dropping to just 12% of pre-Brexit levels. “But the traffic had to keep moving, it just had to, and it did,” Bannister said.

Following France’s closure of its border shortly before Christmas 2020, freight got stuck. But after a combined concerted effort by the Port’s team, EuroTunnel, Kent Resilience Forum and Kent Police, it took just a week to return to normal operations. 

As a potential single point of failure, Dover is frequently perceived to be a problem. Unsurprisingly, Bannister rejects this characterisation: “What we should be doing is saying, yes let’s get our growth back, so rather than trying to find solutions to problems, what we need to do is look for the root causes.”

One potential root cause of disruption the port chief identified is the European Entry System (EES), scheduled to be introduced in May 2022. “If the EES comes in as it’s currently designed, it will stop us,” he said, “Because what that means is people would need to exit their vehicles in live traffic. That would be like stopping your car in the centre lane on the M25 to get your passport checked. That is highly dangerous.”

Bannister’s prescription to fix the root cause is for the A2 to be dualled to give the port a more resilient motorway connection.

“Make certain that this primary artery for trade can be the most robust that it can be and invest the time and attention into it,” he said, “Change the lens from Dover being a problem to celebrating it. That is what we need to do.”


The other vital part of the Short Straits trade route is the Channel Tunnel, managed and operated by the Getlink Group.

Given that the Short Straits facilitates the trade of nearly two-thirds of the UK's trade with the EU, John Keefe, Director of Public Affairs, Getlink Group, argued that it was not properly served with the right infrastructure to keep it flowing.

“We must start looking at this route to improve it and to give it the infrastructure and service that the economy requires,” he said.

Served by only one motorway, the Short Straits is vulnerable to potential disruption and congestion. Keefe argued that the M2 should be extended all the way to the Port of Dover to take the port’s traffic, leaving the M20 clear to take Channel Tunnel traffic from Folkestone.

“The single point of failure is the M20, it’s not the Short Straits,” he said, “The Short Straits represents our two biggest ports.”

On modal shift away from HGVs, Keefe said: “We have rail freight opportunities that have been ignored for the last 27 years. If we can improve railway access to the Channel Tunnel, we can move goods off the road, freeing up space on the roads for local inhabitants, local businesses and making access to the port easier.”


An hour-long discussion on the future of the Short Straits followed, including contributions from Sir Roger Gale, MP for North Thanet, Baroness Hamwee, Chair of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Richard Ballantyne, CEO of the British Ports Association and delegates from Kent County Council and various ferry operators.

Concluding the summit, Alex Veitch said: “We as a group of organisations involved in this are fully bought into the fact that the Short Straits is a key artery for UK trade.

“We share as an association the anxiety about the EES. I think we need to pull together and get some movement on that.”


Published On: 25/11/2021 16:00:23


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