How Wales' biggest port town is preparing for Brexit
On the western tip of Wales, the towering arches of the Celtic Gateway bridge that links Holyhead port with the rest of the town are clearly visible from the plain, white-painted houses. The walk across the bridge from the port into the town takes about five minutes, and is a familiar one for thousands who pass through every single day. Around 1,200 lorries and trailers are carried across the Irish Sea from the port every day.
Some stop for a sandwich or a coffee. Many don’t, choosing instead to get straight on the road, along the A55 heading east, to make their way up north, to the midlands, or further afield. Some in the town say most passing trade actually comes from the day tourists come off the cruise ships that berth during the busy summer months.
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, that trade has been virtually wiped out this year. As for the port of Holyhead, the second biggest roll-on/roll-off port in the UK, its future is currently entangled in the continuing Brexit talks and the search for a customs facility to deal with goods coming from the Republic of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU on December 31.
Trucks are pictured at Holyhead port for the ferry to Dublin (Image: AFP via Getty Images)
Britain and the EU made a final push on Sunday, December 6 in negotiating a trade deal following crisis talks between Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. In an hour-long phone call, the two leaders agreed to instruct their negotiating teams to resume talks on Sunday in a last attempt to see if they can resolve the remaining differences.
With time rapidly running out before the Brexit transition period ends at the end of the month, British sources warned that the process was approaching “the final throw of the dice” to reach an agreement. In a joint statement following their call, Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen acknowledged “significant differences” remained on the key issues of fishing rights, competition rules and the governance arrangements for any deal. “Both sides underlined that no agreement is feasible if these issues are not resolved,” they said.
“Whilst recognising the seriousness of these differences, we agreed that a further effort should be undertaken by our negotiating teams to assess whether they can be resolved. “We are therefore instructing our chief negotiators to reconvene tomorrow (December 6) in Brussels. We will speak again on Monday evening.”
In Wales, major concerns have been raised in the past few weeks over the level of preparedness of its biggest port. Land is needed for potential customs checks on heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) arriving from the Republic of Ireland. Although border controls on the Irish side will be enforced by the European Union (EU) from January 1, inbound lorries into the UK – and Wales – will not face checks until July 2021.
The search for a site has come in fits and starts; plans for a facility on Anglesey Show’s existing park-and-ride facility on the Mona Industrial Estate were thrown out by the island’s local authority in September. This week it was revealed that the UK is considering buying the RoadKing roadside cafe, a popular stop-off for truckers coming into Holyhead, for use as a customs facility. It follows uproar over the revelation that traffic will be diverted to temporary checking facilities in Warrington and Birmingham while a permanent facility nearer Holyhead is found.
This will see some trucks coming into Holyhead from the Republic of Ireland having to travel to England for checks, before going back to Wales again. Last month, queues of trucks stretching for five miles unexpectedly built up in Kent after the French authorities started a trial of post-Brexit checks. While some have welcomed the news of the plan to acquire RoadKing, others have labelled it a “panic” move and a blow to 28 people at the site who will be made redundant.
The RoadKing truck stop at Parc Cybi, not far from the port (Image: Google Maps)
Member of the Senedd (MS) Rhun ap Iorwerth, deputy leader of Plaid Cymru, represents the island of Anglesey.
He claimed this week’s news showed the extent of the UK government’s lack of forward planning for Holyhead port. “This decision to take over Roadking and tell 28 people they’re losing their jobs just before Christmas shows what a mess UK Government has made of Brexit planning, and how little regard they have for those in my community who are affected,” he said. “Yes the border point needs to be in Holyhead but a lack of forward planning means that instead of building new infrastructure, and creating new jobs, they’re actually undermining port infrastructure.
I actively supported the truck stop as an answer to the nuisance of trucks parking all around town. “What we need now is an assurance that those employed at the truck stop will be taken on by border agencies and an assurance that trucks will still be able to park there whilst waiting for the ferry.” Speaking in the Senedd this week, First Minister Mark Drakeford echoed Mr ap Iorwerth’s concerns, saying he had first been made aware of the UK government’s struggles in securing a facility near Holyhead in August.
“It’s three and a half years since the Brexit referendum, and with weeks to go now, the state of preparations at Holyhead does indeed demonstrate just how shambolic the UK Government has been in delivering the outcome for which the Prime Minister campaigned,” he said. Mr Drakeford said the Irish Consul General to Wales was meeting with HMRC and the UK government in Holyhead this week to resolve the issues “that they’ve had three and a half years to grapple with, and still, at this very last minute, are in a scramble to resolve. “It’s just a sign of what is to come, and those who argued for it are responsible.”
But while on a political level there appears to be great concern as time runs perilously short, in Holyhead town, attitudes are more relaxed. Grenville Williams has been running Pete’s Burger Van in Holyhead for more than a decade. He has spent the vast majority of that time flipping patties at the car park at Penrhos Coastal Park before his contract was terminated earlier this year.
He has since found a new home on Newry Beach promenade, with the maritime museum to his left and the research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough (the ship almost infamously called Boaty McBoatface) just a few hundred yards away. Grenville, who said “99% of people” know him as Pete, or Blue, said his first couple of weeks in his new spot have been “absolutely superb.” “I’ve got three people with fishing rods out in front.
There are loads of people walking by, cars everywhere. “It’s an excellent location.”
Pete’s Burger Bar recently moved to its new home on Newry Beach (Image: Pete’s Burger Bar)
Grenville said Holyhead town is “rundown, terrible” – something he puts down to out-of-town shopping centres. “The town centre is dead.
If you think of all your superstars – McDonalds, Tesco, Morrisons – all the big ones, they’re all on the outskirts. “In the town, you’ve got a bookies and not much else.” On June 24, 2016, the island of Anglesey voted to leave the EU by the tightest of margins – there were just 715 votes in it, based on a 73.8% turnout.
Holyhead itself also voted out. And Grenville said he is happy that the time to leave is finally here. “I’ve got my arms wide open waiting for it to happen,” he said.
“It depends on how you look at a glass of beer. I’m a glass half full kind of guy.” He remembers a time where the town’s streets were filled with day-trippers from Dublin who would take advantage of duty-free sales on board ships and spend their money in the shops and pubs in Holyhead.
Holyhead port’s management, Stena Line, has confirmed that duty free will be returning after Brexit. “We are expanding our retail range and have even brought forward the refurbishment of Stena Europe to add a new shop,” a spokesperson said. Under duty free, a regular bottle of Jameson will reduce from GBP26 to GBP16, and Absolut vodka will reduce from GBP23 to GBP9.
Grenville isn’t convinced the port’s success has filtered through to the rest of the town, and thinks a return to duty-free will help. “It’s a roll-on/roll-off port, so they’re coming straight off the boat and going straight off to England,” he said. “You have these cruise ships coming in at the moment, [and] they’re sending people straight to Snowdonia.
“Duty free will bring more foot passengers into Holyhead, I think.” He said although it was no longer front and centre in the town, Brexit was “not forgotten.”
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“Most people here want it to happen. I’ve been talking to my customers for years about Brexit.
“It’s a simplistic way to put it, but if you take GBP100, the EU gives you GBP70 and gives you rules and regulations on how you’re allowed to spend it, and puts the other GBP30 in their back pocket. “Without the EU, we will have that GBP100 and we can decide what to do with it, whether we put it into our ships or whatever.” In a final word before he makes off to serve a customer awaiting a piping hot coffee, he added: “I honestly believe Brexit will be a good thing for places like here.
“People work hard around here. it’s not a place where people sit around and wait for something to happen. “You’ve got to get up and get on with it.” Helen Evans has run LL65 craft shop on the town’s main street for two and a half years.
She thinks the main tourist trade comes from people coming off the cruise ships, rather than the truckers.
Helen Evans runs the LL65 crafts shop in the town (Image: LL65)‘[Brexit] was a lot in people’s minds before Covid, but people have had to focus on more immediate problems’ (Image: LL65)
“Thankfully we have got a very good local customer base in Holyhead. A lot of people do use the town for basic services. I’m fortunate to be opposite the post office, which obviously helps to bring people into the main high street,” she said.
“That’s what’s really kept us going. “We’ve got the cruise ships that come through, Holyhead is a stop-off on the link between Dublin and Liverpool. Obviously we’ve missed all of that trade this year.
“I find I get a lot of people who are travelling to or from Ireland and have an hour or two to wander around town before their train to London or wherever, and buy a few gifts on the way to seeing their family “People stop off, park up, have something to eat and have a look around the shops for an hour, and see a bit of Anglesey.” Helen said the pandemic had hurt business in the town, but that there have been positives.
“Takings have been down because we’ve not been selling as many of the luxury items. My stationary business has kept me ticking over, people looking for gifts and that. It’s just not having that quantity of sales.
“The council has been really good with the lockdown grant and the rents relief, that’s really kept us going. it’s been a great lift for people.” Do people still talk about Brexit here? “It was a lot in people’s minds before Covid, but people have had to focus on more immediate problems, health issues and the new regulations,” she replied.
“It’s obviously key to Holyhead and the port. I guess we’re going to have to wait and see how that pans out, put it in the hands of people who hopefully know what they’re doing.” She said she knows people who work at the port who feel positive about it.
“They say there’s no reason why we shouldn’t legitimately be able to move forward once [Brexit happens]. “They’ve done it before back in the days of duty free, so hopefully they can do it again. I’m sure it’ll affect everybody in some shape or form, but we won’t really know until it happens..
With all the upcoming changes, there have been fears stoked of delays, trucks backed up along the A55 and traffic chaos in Holyhead town itself, though the UK government has assured that these are unfounded.
Trucks at Holyhead port (Image: Getty Images)
Over the water, Ireland has also been expressing a degree of panic. Eugene Drennan is the president of the Irish Road Haulage Association (IRHA), which represents Irish goods transporters. “Everybody is very concerned about it,” he said. “It’s going to be such a big upheaval on the streamlined measures of the last 30 years.
“I am old enough to remember the last time of custom posts, waiting for papers, time delays, and in those years we had an acceptance of those regulations within the haulage industry. “Since then everything has streamlined so much, with the internet and mobile phones, and the amount of freight has escalated year-on-year since Ireland joined the EU. “We now have a EUR5 billion trade between us and the UK, we’re their biggest customer.
“To change any of that is chaotic, so we have big concerns.” Eugene said a number of areas had yet to be properly planned for. “Deal or no deal at this stage matters a little bit in regards to methodology, but the solid fact remains that the UK is leaving.
“There are definites [to plan for], which I’ve been saying for three months. There will be requirements in terms of declarations to customs and informing them what you have on board, under what category it comes, and whether there is a tariff or not. “Why we’re not more prepared on both sides is beyond me.
It’s a year late.”
An aerial view of a Stena Line ferry crossing the Irish Sea off the Holyhead peninsula (Image: Getty Images)
Eugene said the news on the possible purchase of the RoadKing truck stop was welcome, but questioned where a replacement was going to come from. “It’s right on the spot going in, it’s not affecting the town so much, and there is parking. “However, where is the replacement truck stop going to be?
The parking around Holyhead is poor. We’ve seen it blocked up before which is unfair to the people living there.”
Questions have also been raised about the digital infrastructure that will be in place between the Republic of Ireland and the UK once it leaves. Stena Line has said it is “working with HMRC” to develop the new system that links with the goods vehicle movement system (GVMS), the UK’s new IT border system after Brexit.
“We understand from them that this will not be live until December 31,” a company spokesperson said, adding that Stena Line was still awaiting a response from HMRC on “contingency measures” in the case of any glitches in the new systems. On Friday, Stena Line’s director of Brexit policy, Ian Hampton, told Sky News that the company “understand [that] the government will be taking a pragmatic approach” regarding truckers who don’t have the necessary paperwork after December 31. If this is the case, it possibly opens a door to allowing a degree of flexibility for truckers who don’t have all the correct documentation after the transition period ends this month.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that checks on goods coming into the UK after December 31 would be phased in in three stages. In the first stage, full customs checks and tariffs will be imposed on ‘controlled’ goods such as alcohol and tobacco. But importers of ‘standard’ goods like clothes and electronics will have up to six months to complete customs declarations and to pay tariffs, if any apply.
A UK Government spokesperson said: “The transition period ends on December 31, 2020. Recognising the impact of Covid on businesses’ ability to prepare, we announced in the summer a pragmatic approach of introducing import controls in three stages to give industry more time to make the necessary arrangements.” A HMRC spokesperson said the delivery of the HMRC IT systems was “on track.” It said it was currently testing the GVMS “with industry and will go live shortly,” but did not comment on contingency plans in the case of the systems failing.
A Stena Line spokesperson said the new GVMS had not yet been tested with the company. What do you think should happen in Holyhead? Leave your comments here. The island of Anglesey has consistently been ranked among one of the poorest regions in the UK.
The most recent statistics from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in 2017 found the region had the lowest gross value added (GVA), which measures how much money is generated through goods produced and services delivered, in the whole of the UK. It is a region which has been particularly impacted by the decline of industry, such as the closure of Anglesey Aluminium, Peboc and Octel. There are causes for hope – the success of Menai Science Park and the island’s Coleg Menai – as well as the divisive proposed nuclear power station at Wylfa, which it is claimed would bring thousands of jobs to the area.
But views on whether or not Holyhead ever really benefited from the EU, or whether the port success filters through to the town just a few minutes’ walk away, vary depending on who you ask. Vaughan Williams is a Plaid Cymru councillor for Holyhead. He said he was “deeply concerned at the lack of preparedness” at the port, something he said was backed up by the RoadKing news this week.
Cllr Williams argued Holyhead had benefited from EU membership, citing the Objective 1 programme, a multi-million euro funding programme from the EU to help develop areas of the UK including Anglesey. He said the fact the UK government had not promised to match current EU funding levels after Brexit was a concern. “The lack of commitment from the corridors of Whitehall is of grave concern.
Holyhead recently had millions in EU funding for the heliport site in town, for example,” he said. However, he conceded that while the port remained the biggest employer in town since the the closure of Anglesey Aluminium in 2009, attracting more people from the port into the town had been “an ongoing issue. “In reality, most travellers go into their vehicles and drive away to another destination elsewhere.
The town benefits more from the cruise liners that berth during the summer months,” he said. Mr ap Iorwerth was more adamant about the port’s importance to Holyhead’s overall success. “It’s hugely important in terms of employment, [there are] hundreds of jobs directly linked to the port’s operations,” he said.
“Many families are dependent on those jobs. The vitality of the town in many ways is dependent on the vitality of the port. “There’s the importance of the train station, and the base for train maintenance and stabling in Holyhead is linked to the fact there is a very important international crossing there.”
Holyhead port in 2019 (Image: Getty Images)
But there is agreement on one thing in particular – that Brexit poses grave threats to the port’s success.
“A no deal Brexit isn’t in anyone’s interest, and especially not Holyhead’s,” Cllr Williams said. “Companies across Europe are already looking at the viability of more EU to Republic of Ireland sailings to cut out any obstacles to their business. We as a town can ill afford to see the port being downgraded, a port which is the very fabric of our community and has been for centuries, from the days of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company to more modern companies of today.”
Mr ap Iorwerth said growth of the port had rocketed to 693% at one point since the UK entered the single market. “The fear is that trade that doesn’t absolutely have to go through Holyhead will go through other routes,” he stressed. Whether or not a deal is agreed, major changes to Holyhead port are inevitable.
“There was a problem politically with the UK government suggesting that it was going to be very easy to deliver Brexit, that there weren’t going to be any problems with the ports, and that we didn’t really need to worry too much,” said Mr ap Iorwerth. “When actually everything should’ve been done in terms of contingency planning, to plan for the worst. “Here we are with weeks to go to January, months to go to July, without the proper infrastructure in place.
This suggests that they didn’t plan with worst case scenarios in mind. “I would sum it up as [an attitude of] ‘it’ll be fine’. I can’t take that on face value because there are too many things that can go wrong, both in the short and long term.”
In Holyhead, there appears to be an inescapable familiarity to the narrative; a struggling town centre with a sense of forgottenness, and a view that, well, things can’t get much worse, can they? Ms Evans from LL65 said she still believes Brexit can be positive for the town. “We’re a big town.
We’ve been accommodating people passing through for years, we have the infrastructure to cope with it, so hopefully it will be positive. It’s much needed. “I’m not uncertain about the future, I’m really positive.
I think Anglesey has been really good, the council has been great, the schools have coped really well. I think now with the vaccine coming up, hopefully we can start getting back to some sort of normality. “I think people will be more cautious for a while.
The perspex and the hand gel is probably going to become part of life for some time to come yet.”
A spokesperson for HMRC said: “HMRC has, for a number of months, been working closely with the Welsh Government, local authorities and ports, to understand requirements and implement infrastructure changes.
“We are now in discussions with the Welsh Government and RoadKing to purchase the site for use as an Inland Clearance location, which will be prepared for use in line with the staged introduction of full border controls in 2021.”
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