‘It was built for 80 vehicles. We’re expecting six’: the big Brexit border posts that may never be fully used

<span>Portsmouth councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson: ‘This has been incredibly badly handled’.</span><span>Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian</span>
Portsmouth councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson: ‘This has been incredibly badly handled’.Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“It’s a monumental white elephant, just painted black,” says Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Portsmouth city council’s cabinet member for transport, standing outside the £23m warehouse, which was completed two years ago.

The 8,000 sq metre facility situated in Portsmouth International Port – the UK’s second busiest cross-Channel terminal – is the home to its border control post (BCP). One of more than 100 registered BCPs, it will be the place where many food and plant products coming through Portsmouth from the EU will be checked when post-Brexit import rules come in on 30 April.

Filled with expensive loading equipment and refrigeration systems, the site has 14 unloading bays, where lorries are expected to be examined, and 22 processing chambers, where plant and meat products will be checked by hand for disease by government inspectors.

But despite millions of pounds being pumped into the south coast project, half of the site will be left empty and unused when it comes into operation next month, and the council is chasing a reimbursement of £6m of the construction costs from government.

“When we built this, it was designed to the exact specifications the government wanted under its previous Border Operating Model. Now we are only expecting to use seven bays and 10 chambers,” says Mike Sellers, the port’s director.

The difficulties at Portsmouth have been replicated to varying degrees across the UK, with millions of pounds spent on facilities that may be only partially used. Unlike the majority of ports across the country, which are privately owned, Portsmouth is owned by the council, meaning the authority picks up the associated costs.

“You will find similar situations with a number of other roll-on-roll-off ports across the country,” says Richard Ballantyne, the chief executive of the British Ports Association.

Since the government first announced it would check imports of products of plant and animal origin after Brexit, ministers have changed their minds on the scope of these checks. This has meant the volume of goods expected to go through BCPs such as Portsmouth has fallen, while the amount of redundant space in these facilities has grown.

“It was built for between 50 and 80 vehicles per day: we are now expecting to process only half a dozen when it opens,” Sellers added.

When the UK left the single market in January 2021, the EU immediately began requiring health certificates for British meat, dairy and plant products, while also introducing physical inspections at EU borders.

The UK is now following suit. The certification scheme is already in place, and inspections on high- and medium-risk imports start next month.

In expectation of these checks, 40 ports, including Portsmouth, applied to the government’s £200m Port Infrastructure Fund in 2020 to build new, or upgrade existing, infrastructure. Among the newly built BCPs were three at Hull, Immingham and Killingholme on the Humber, costing £70m, and a £15m BCP at the port of Purfleet in Essex.

But port owners have argued that the fund was not big enough, and that they have had to cover the difference. Their trade association, the UK Major Ports Group (UKMPG), calculates that they have paid £100m to fill the funding gap.

Ballantyne says a condition of funding was that BCPs met government specifications under its original Border Operating Model. However, in April 2022, fearing the checks would add to food inflation, the then Brexit opportunities minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, confirmed the government would alter the plan and come up with a more targeted checks regime.

This was replaced by the current system, the Border Target Operating Model (BTOM), which requires checks on only high- and medium-risk products.

Ballantyne says the problem is that most ports had built the infrastructure by the time the changes were brought in, meaning many were left with facilities that will be far larger than what is needed.

But this is not the case everywhere – at Sevington, the inland border control post which will check imports coming through the Port of Dover, there are concerns it is not big enough.

This week, the Dover Port Health Authority warned that the facility may not be able to cope with scale, and had “significant capacity and design limitations.”

At Portsmouth’s BCP, you can see that it has the opposite problem, with “Keep Out” signs on changing rooms, offices and huge loading bays which will remain empty well after April. However, it will still cost the council £800,000 a year to operate, and £1.8m to staff.

“We are starting to look at the longer-term solution of how to bring down operating costs based on the volumes that will now be coming through the BCP,” says Sellers. “That solution might be building a new, much smaller BCP and trying to generate some form of income from this facility.” He suggests it could be demolished entirely to make way for more profitable commercial premises.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says that the new border controls are being introduced progressively to protect the country’s biosecurity. It adds that it provided £200m to ports and that it had been up to each BCP to determine how that funding was best used.

These financial pressures have been exacerbated by five separate delays to the implementation of new border rules, which has meant that Portsmouth and other BCPs have been mothballed for years, unable to recover costs.

When the checks do eventually come in, the ports will be able to recover these costs through a common user charge, which will be levied on businesses that use them. But despite there being just over a month until the checks come in, the government has yet to finalise the details on what it will charge at its own BCPs, which is affecting commercial ports.

Marco Forgione, the director general of the Institute of Export and International Trade, says: “The uncertainty this causes doesn’t just impact exporters and importers: it extends to commercially run BCPs, who can’t set their prices and charging structure until they know exactly what the government charges will be.”

Geraint Evans, the chief executive of UKMPG, says the government is “cutting it fine” to allow operators to have visibility of charges.

He says: “Sophisticated markets are price sensitive and we maintain our clear position that anything other than full cost recovery of the initial investment in the posts and operational costs would be unfair, potentially skewing what should be a level playing field.”

For Vernon-Jackson, it is just another BCP-related headache to add to a long list. “Irrespective of whether you think Brexit is a good or a bad idea, this has been incredibly badly handled,” he says.