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Brexit is an opportunity to advance UK logistics infrastructure, but the government must ensure simplified Customs procedures in any exit deal with the EU.
This was the view of a panel of speakers at the Keep Britain Trading conference today, organised by the Freight Transport Association.
Director of public affairs at UPS Richard Currie said seamless connectivity between the UK and the EU was critical for both sides to continue doing business successfully.
“It’s important that the relationship does not descend into one of third-nation status,” said Mr Currie. “This would increase procedures and Customs processing, resulting in major backlogs across the entire supply chain.”
Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association (BPA), supported Mr Currie, adding that facilitation was also the BPA’s number-one concern.
“Ports are natural bottlenecks,” said Mr Ballantyne. “Bureaucracy, particularly in Customs and border procedures, can cause significant blockages.”
He noted that while the EU had the ability to form Customs-light procedures, the political will and need to reinforce the strength of the EU could be a hindrance.
Alongside ensuring open road and sea movements, Mr Currie said the government would also need to secure open skies agreements with both the EU and the US – the UK’s existing open sky agreement with the US was signed as part of its EU membership.
The panel also called for clarity on the situation surrounding migration, with the UK facing a skills shortage – particularly in terms of HGV drivers, with the Road Haulage Association claiming a shortfall of around 50,000.
Kevin Lucas, supply chain operations director at Neovia, said 60,000 drivers on UK roads were from East European countries and expressed concern that, with unemployment at less than 5%, any threat to these workers would add strain to the industry “beyond breaking point”.
“If migration is made a bargaining chip during negotiations, there could be a major exodus of HGV drivers,” said Mr Lucas. “We are already struggling to fill existing shortfalls, so where will we get this workforce from?”
Despite concerns over Customs and jobs, the panel said Brexit also presented an opportunity to speed up the technological development of UK supply chains.
“Artificial intelligence, innovation and thinking outside the box can all benefit from Brexit,” said Mr Lucas. “It will provide a platform for us to think further on how we use technology and maybe the impetus to deploy it.”
Mr Ballantyne shared this view, arguing that if the government approached the negotiations with “sensitivity and intelligence”, the logistics sector could thrive.
“We urge the government to work with us on this,” he said.