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Truckers Shun U.K. Ports to Avoid Brexit Red Tape

Truckers Shun U.K. Ports to Avoid Brexit Red Tape

British ports expected gridlock after post-Brexit trade rules began on Jan. 1. Instead, some are nearly empty as truckers stay away, reluctant to spend hours waiting for newly required export documents.

Truckers Shun U.K. Ports to Avoid Brexit Red Tape
Credit…Phil Hatcher-Moore for The New York Times

  • Jan. 27, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

HOLYHEAD, Wales — Beneath swirling gray clouds, Bryan Anderson leaned from the cab window of his truck to vent his frustration at the new paperwork that had already delayed his journey through Britain’s second-largest ferry port by half a day.

“It’s a nightmare,” Mr. Anderson said, explaining how he spent hours waiting at a depot 250 miles away for export documents required because of Brexit. The delay meant he reached Holyhead, in Wales, too late for the ferry he planned to take to Dublin, and for the next one, too.

“I am roughly 12 hours behind schedule,” he said as he prepared, finally, to drive aboard the Stena Adventurer to Dublin to drop off a consignment of parcels for Ireland’s mail service.

Fear of hassles and red tape stemming from the introduction of the new rules governing Britain’s trade with the European Union that came into effect on Jan. 1 led to dire predictions of overwhelming gridlock at British ports.

But, so far, the opposite has happened. Apart from hardy souls like Mr. Anderson, truckers are increasingly shunning ports like Holyhead. They are fearful of the mountains of paperwork now required for journeys that last month involved little more than driving on to a ferry in one country and off it in another.

Truckers Shun U.K. Ports to Avoid Brexit Red Tape
Credit…Phil Hatcher-Moore for The New York Times

On Thursday, just a couple of dozen other trucks stood waiting for the same ferry as Mr. Anderson in a vast but almost empty port-side parking lot. Holyhead is operating at half its normal capacity and staff have been placed on furlough.

“It’s too much hassle to go through,” Mr. Anderson said.

After months of uncertainty and tense negotiations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally struck a trade deal with the European Union on Christmas Eve. So when Britain left Europe’s single market and customs union on Jan. 1, it avoided the chaos seen during a dress-rehearsal border closure by French officials in December.

Yet the old system that allowed frictionless travel to and from European nations is over. Despite claims by its supporters that Brexit would reduce bureaucracy, companies need to produce millions of customs declarations as well as new documentation like health certifications for food and proof of origin for a wide variety of goods. Shipments of mixed goods — like the parcels Mr. Anderson was carrying — can mean a plethora of paperwork for drivers to cover everything being carried.

Across Britain, the impact of the rules has caught traders by surprise, setting off a chain reaction that has threatened some jobs and livelihoods.

Credit…Phil Hatcher-Moore for The New York Times

Outraged over costly delays, Scottish shellfish exporters blockaded the Parliament in London in protest. A truck load of chips destined for a supermarket in Northern Ireland was held up for two days as the truck company sought to prove the origin of the potatoes they were made with, according to a British lawmaker. And more than 600 truck drivers have been fined for breaking a rule designed to prevent congestion that requires them to have a permit to approach Britain’s busiest port, Dover in Kent.

Under the new rules, truckers must log their consignments with the authorities before reaching ports. Relatively few arrive without the paperwork — just 7 percent at Holyhead, according to the port.

But that is because many are stuck elsewhere awaiting papers.

The new system has also raised questions about the future of one of Europe’s busiest trade routes, between Ireland, which remains part of the European Union, and continental Europe.

The quickest route for trucks is generally via a ferry from Dublin to Holyhead, then east to Dover on England’s coast, and from there a short ferry trip to Calais in France.

Before the Brexit changes, that journey via the “land bridge” was cheap and reliable, required almost no paperwork and allowed trucks to drop off loads along the way.

Credit…Phil Hatcher-Moore for The New York Times

But that route has been obstructed by a thicket of bureaucracy, and many companies are opting for direct services between Ireland and France to stay within the European Union.

Whether this reflects teething troubles or a fundamental shift is unclear, and the changes have been welcomed in some quarters.

Some environmental campaigners hope the drop in trade will be permanent and reduce the number of trucks crisscrossing Britain.

Port operators had expected a drop-off in trade as companies emptied stockpiles they had built in December in case there was no trade deal. The pandemic has also hit commerce and tourism, just as companies are adjusting to Brexit-era form filling.

But there are fears that the hit to ports like Holyhead may have lasting implications.

“Very loud alarm bells are ringing,” said Rhun ap Iorwerth, a member of the Welsh Senedd, or Parliament, for Plaid Cymru, a party that advocates independence for Wales.

“It is clear that trade is down massively through the port,” he said. “I hope this is a temporary phenomenon but I fear that new patterns of trading are being established here and I worry for jobs. The smaller the traffic through the port, the fewer people you need to work at the port.”

Virginia Crosbie, a lawmaker with Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party, said she expected “that the fluctuations in transport patterns we are seeing at the moment will be short term,” citing the benefits of the “land-bridge” route through England.

Credit…Phil Hatcher-Moore for The New York Times

Others are more doubtful, noting that eight weekend ferry services from Holyhead to Dublin have already been canceled, while those between Ireland and France have been ramped up.

“Given the choice, I think a lot of that traffic has switched to the direct routes,” said William Calderbank, port operations manager at Holyhead, which is operated by Stena Line , adding that, while he expects much business to return, some of it will not.

To add to Holyhead’s problems, it is also losing business to ports in Scotland and northern England that offer routes to Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, that generally require less bureaucracy.

It now makes little sense to send goods destined for Northern Ireland through Holyhead and then by truck north through Ireland — a popular route previously.

And while companies should get better at completing paperwork, they face additional changes in the future. The British government is phasing in its own post-Brexit rules, waving most imports through.

But, from July, it will apply full controls as the Irish and French do now.

“We are only in phase one of Brexit, we have another one coming in July,” said Mr. Calderbank.

Credit…Phil Hatcher-Moore for The New York Times

That will add to the burden for companies who already face complex regulations.

Andrew Kinsella, managing director of Gwynedd Shipping, a transportation company headquartered in Holyhead, described how one consignment was held in Ireland for seven hours while officials questioned whether it should be certified as a dairy product because of milk contained in cookies’ chocolate chips.

Holyhead “is a ghost town,” he said. “You don’t see the normal steady stream of vehicles every day; you are lucky to see a handful of trucks when the ferries arrive.”

At Road King, a Holyhead truck stop, another driver, Rob Lucas, was still parked midafternoon at the spot where he arrived at 6 a.m. to await clearance to take a load into the port.

He had no idea when the text message authorizing him to move would come but did know that the delay had already wrecked his next day’s schedule.

Credit…Phil Hatcher-Moore for The New York Times

“The only way I can explain it is to say that everything used to run freely, there was no waiting for paperwork; but last Friday I was held up five hours in Kent,” he said.

“We are all stuck in limbo — one of our lads was here for four days early in January,” Mr. Lucas said. “It’s terrible, absolutely terrible,” he added, and “I can only see it getting worse before it gets better.”

For Some Scottish Seafood Businesses, Brexit Could Be a Death Knell

For Some Scottish Seafood Businesses, Brexit Could Be a Death Knell

Daunting new paperwork could cause border delays that would ruin entire shipments — and their businesses.

For Some Scottish Seafood Businesses, Brexit Could Be a Death Knell
Credit…Russell Cheyne/Reuters
  • Jan. 13, 2021Updated 2:12 p.m. ET

LONDON — Loaded with tons of live crab, lobster and prawns, the trucks headed south from the Scottish town of Oban had to reach their destination in Spain within 72 hours to be sure the cargo would survive the trip.

But with Britain operating new post-Brexit trading rules, a journey that used to be routine is now a high-stakes gamble for the exporter Paul Knight, managing director of PDK Shellfish.

“It is like roulette,” said Mr. Knight, as he waved off two giant trucks, adding that though he spent tens of thousands of pounds on Brexit preparations he remained terrified that holdups in French ports could cause a large part of his shipment to perish.

“We are as Brexit-ready as we can be and we are still staring failure in the face,” he said.

“I am exhausted, the pressure is so intense — it is like being on a knife edge,” he added.

Since Britain completed the final stage of Brexit on Jan. 1 and left the European Union’s single market and customs union, the world has changed for British exporters to the continent and not in a good way.

Despite a trade deal, struck by Britain and the European Union on Christmas Eve, promises once made by Brexit campaigners that leaving the bloc would free companies from needless bureaucracy now sound like a macabre joke. Consignments that previously moved with minimal fuss now need voluminous paperwork including customs declarations and, for food products, health certificates.

Some British companies have suspended sales to continental Europe and even to Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom although it now has a special customs status because of its land border with Ireland, a European Union member state.

The complications pose a particular threat to Scottish seafood exporters, many of whom rely on the European market because, they say, there is no similar demand at home.

For Some Scottish Seafood Businesses, Brexit Could Be a Death Knell
Credit…Andy Buchanan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Before dispatching a truck load of live crabs, Colin Anderson and three colleagues devoted an entire day to completing the new paperwork. Even that left him struggling to secure one last document needed to move more than three tons of crab to the Netherlands.

“We thought we were on top of it, but we still don’t have all the documentation,” said Mr. Anderson, managing director of The Crab Company (Scotland), based in Peterhead, as he debated which route to choose for his consignment.

Jimmy Buchan, chief executive of the Scottish Seafood Association, a trade organization, said the new system was “red tape gone crazy.” There are, he added, “so many certificates required, and if they are not all aligned 100 percent, even if it’s a clerical error, the system rejects it.”

For companies that were already reeling from the coronavirus and a collapse in demand from the hospitality trade, the arrival of new trade rules has come as a sucker punch.

In a video posted on Twitter, Lochfyne Langoustines and Lochfyne Seafarms said that its stock was stuck at ports, that exports to the European mainland had become impossible and that the company could be forced out of business.

“Welcome to the Modern world of Brexit and the mess it brings,” it said. “Unbelievable that we find ourselves in this position.”

Victoria Leigh-Pearson, sales director of John Ross Jr., a smoked salmon producer based in Aberdeen, said entire truck loads were being rejected by French customs authorities, apparently without explanation.

“It feels as if our own government has thrown us into the cold Atlantic waters without a life jacket,” she wrote in a letter to the government.

Donna Fordyce, chief executive of Seafood Scotland, another trade group, said in a statement that the changes have unleashed layer upon layer of administrative problems, resulting in delays, border refusals and confusion.

“These businesses are not transporting toilet rolls or widgets,” Ms. Fordyce said. “They are exporting the highest quality perishable seafood which has a finite window to get to market in peak condition.”

Mr. Buchan of the Scottish seafood association said that customers were rejecting some consignments and that products that got through sometimes lost value because of the added journey times.

Credit…Kieran Dodds for The New York Times

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this would be the death knell of some companies,” Mr. Buchan said. “Some are losing tens of thousands of pounds, and in some cases, it’s running into the hundreds of thousands.”

Instead of minimal bureaucracy, exporting fish to France is now a 25-step process. As well as customs declarations, every consignment of fish and seafood needs health certification after inspection.

At the ports, traffic is still moving freely across the Channel, but that is partly because the holdups are elsewhere.

Central to moving Scottish fish to the markets in France is DFDS, a Danish logistics company that also runs ferry services. It has set up inspections at Larkhall, near Glasgow, where seafood is sent before being driven to ports and then to the continent.

But the integration with government tax and customs systems has not been smooth, forcing the company to implement slower, manual workarounds. In Larkhall there have been delays in getting health certificates signed off and other holdups from exporters failing to send the correct paperwork.

“Our people who are supposed to enter the information have been overwhelmed because of delays.” said Torben Carlsen, the chief executive of DFDS.

Consequently, the company is not currently accepting new orders from smaller companies whose goods have to be grouped together in one truck with lots of different paperwork.

Because each consignment needs the correct certification, a problem with any one of them can stop the entire truckload.

“We have been very stringent,” Mr. Carlsen said. “And so, I believe, has everybody else in making sure that if you don’t have your paperwork in place, you cannot enter the ports. Because if you do that and you cannot move, then you risk much bigger operational problems and supply chain issues.”

As for the extra costs, the Scottish government estimates that new delays at the border including new customs formalities are expected to amount to 7 billion pounds, about $9.5 billion, annually for British business.

Credit…Kieran Dodds for The New York Times

Many Scottish exporters feel aggrieved that while the British decided to wave through many European trucks for several months as the kinks are worked out of the system, France put the new rules in place from Day 1.

They want the government to negotiate concessions with the French authorities and, with opinion polls showing majority support for Scottish independence, the seafood industry’s problems are likely to add to resentment of London. A majority of the Scots who voted in the Brexit referendum of 2016 wanted to remain in the European Union but they were outnumbered by English and Welsh voters.

While the system could become more efficient in the coming months as teething troubles are smoothed, it is unlikely to become significantly less bureaucratic now that Britain has left the European Union’s customs union and single market.

Inevitably, that means millions more forms being required of exporters though the government — which has urged companies to expand their horizons and look for non-European markets — says it has warned them for months to prepare for post-Brexit trading terms.

But for Mr. Knight, from Oban, no amount of preparation can insure against the possibility that his highly perishable product will find itself stuck in a line for hours behind other vehicles awaiting inspection on arrival at a French port.

French officials are trying their best, he said, and two of his trucks have made it successfully. But they traveled during the holiday period when traffic was unusually light, a situation that is bound to change.

With little market for his premium shellfish in Britain, Mr. Knight said the only way to keep his company going was to keep gambling with the cross-Channel export trade even if the odds were against him.

“At some point we are going to tap the wrong key on the computer or some document is going to have the wrong date on it,” he said. “It’s not a question of if they are going to catch me out, it’s when.”