Hopes and fears for 30 years

Paul Gunton

30 January 2019

I hope that some ShipInsight readers will get to see how the UK’s new maritime strategy works out. I probably won’t, because I’ll be 93 when the UK’s Department for Transport’s (DfT) huge report, Maritime 2050: Navigating the future, can be finally judged on its impact.

This 338-page document was published last Thursday (24 January) and my colleague Malcolm Latarche provided a valuable overview of its objectives the next day. I have since tried to digest some of its many ambitions.

We journalists are always looking for an ‘angle’ on a story. In other words, the approach we are going to take towards all the information we have collected about a development so as to give our readers a clear and useful insight on what it means for them. In this case, I started by looking at the angle the government itself had taken with its own announcement.

“The government has today set out its ambitions for the country to remain a world-leader in the maritime industry for the next 30 years,” it said. I have not read every word of the document, but what I have read is similarly optimistic.

I find it hard to share that sentiment. Perhaps I am too focused on the near term, as the UK stumbles towards crashing out of the European Union without a departure deal – never mind any trade deals – but these upbeat remarks from the report strike me as somewhat hopeful: “Following EU exit … regaining our independence at international fora such as the World Trade Organization will allow us to … maximise our influence on shaping the future of the sector. …Multilateral and bilateral agreements will be used to grow the UK economy and maintain the sector’s competitive advantage at a global level.”

I make no secret that I voted to remain in the EU, but not all my colleagues did and I am sure many readers, both in the UK and elsewhere – disagree with me too. And if the report reflects the consensus view of the 170 companies and organisations that contributed to it, the industry’s view is also more towards the brighter end of the spectrum than mine is, in which case I may be a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

But recent comments from senior members of two of those contributors seem to be at odds with the report’s tone, so I don’t think I am alone in my views.

One of the contributors to the study was the UK Chamber of Shipping and the day after the report’s publication it featured the study as the lead item in its excellent Daily Briefing email. It quoted the chamber’s chief executive Bob Sanguinetti describing it as a “robust and forward-thinking strategy” that “sets out clear ambitions.”

Bob Sanguinetti, UK Chamber of Shipping

That is certainly on-message so when I woke on Monday morning (28 January) to hear Bob being interviewed in the business segment of the BBC’s morning radio news programme, I assumed he was going to talk about these heady aspirations. But he didn’t. Oddly, I thought, he was asked to explain what the Brexit “backstop” is – the default clause in the departure agreement that would come into effect in no trade deal has been agreed with the EU by the end of 2020 – and to say what his members felt about it. This government report and his support for it were not mentioned.

If you’re wondering, he does not want there to be a backstop. “It would limit the UK’s ability to pursue an independent trade policy,” and it is “the key obstacle standing in the way of a deal, in the absence of which … we will end up crashing out without a deal,” he said. His members want to prepare for the future, he went on but “it’s difficult to prepare for the future when we don’t know what it looks like.”

He could have said that the government had just published an upbeat report about that future. “As the UK looks to reframe its relationship with the world, … we are confident the maritime sector will thrive and strengthen, as it harnesses the opportunities that EU exit brings,” it states. Instead, Bob painted a bleak picture of a “damaging, disruptive and chaotic” situation in ports and across business and manufacturing in the absence of a deal. It sounded to me as though he shares at least some of my worries.

I accept that the report has a 30-year outlook and I am fussing about the next few years, but if Bob and his members’ concerns come to fruition, there is a risk that the UK’s new maritime strategy will fall at the first.

I’ll put that to one side for now and assume that we get past this initial hurdle and that the rest of the strategy starts falling into place. The report sets out 10 ‘Strategic ambitions’ and I will pick one of them: it is to “grow our maritime workforce and transform their diversity, enhancing our reputation as the world leader in the provision of maritime education and training.”

That is easier said than done. A week before the report was published, I attended a round-table discussion in London, organised by a Norwegian PR company, that brought together industry thinkers and the marine trade press. One of those taking part was Richard Westgarth, head of campaigns for BMT Global. Like the UK Chamber of Shipping, BMT had also contributed some views for the DfT’s report.

Richard’s remarks during the round table gave an indication of the size of the task if that particular ambition is to be met, but they also made it clear that the issue to be addressed is not just a UK one: it is global.

The issue is this: “People’s attitudes to work and the work environment are changing very quickly,” he said. People coming into the labour market today might not be looking for ‘a job’, he said; instead they want to be part of a working community, perhaps with multiple jobs, in which they will feel valued. And those jobs will be information- and technology-rich.

How does shipping stack up against that? He believes that “skills in the maritime sector probably haven’t changed in the past 50 years and they are going to need to,” so we should “start worrying and thinking and planning ahead for these changes.”

From across the table, he was asked how well the industry is prepared for this new approach. “I don’t think it is very well prepared at all,” he said. Take STCW, for example: “it doesn’t have much on digital skills and yet that is a fundamental requirement of seafarer training.”

So if the UK – or anywhere else – is to “grow [its] maritime workforce and transform their diversity” it will not be enough to be “the world leader in the provision of maritime education and training.” There must be a complete rethink of how seafarers and others in the industry want to work followed by structural changes to ship management and operations to make shipping an attractive industry to people with these new aspirations. Only then will education and training come into the equation.

To be fair, the DfT report does not pretend to have all the answers and its whole tone is that there is a lot of work to be done. But at least there is a strategy worth talking about and the government has committed itself to a wide range of actions, summarised in a lengthy annex. But over the period covered by the report, at least six UK governments will have come and gone and I wonder whether each successive administration will feel bound to fulfil the commitments made by its ever more distant predecessor.

My usual motto for life is to hope for the best, and I do hope for the best from this study. So I look forward to one day reading my eventual successor tracing the unparalleled success of UK shipping back to this report and saying how the global industry followed its example. But what do you think? Follow the links to the report at the start of this piece and then email me with your views.