'No quick and easy solution' to Felixstowe Port supply chain problems

An aerial shot of the Port of Felixstowe.

Problems are plaguing the global supply chain and affecting ports including the Port of Felixstowe. - Credit: ALAN BOYLE

"There is no quick and easy solution" - that is the warning from business and community leaders as supply chain delays continue at Felixstowe Port.

The port has said that "like other major container ports worldwide", it is "still experiencing high container volumes and dealing with the consequences of the ongoing Covid pandemic".

A statement on its website added: "In addition we had a large number of slow moving containers of PPE occupying storage space.

"The current high volumes are expected to last into the New Year and we are working hard to minimise the impact on daily operations and to maintain vital supply chains."

According to the Port of Felixstowe's website, it is recruiting 104 new members of staff and container terminals have now extended their opening hours for road freight.

It has also changed how it handles the shipping of empty containers. 

However, businesses and community leaders across Suffolk are now working together to try and fix the problems - and are calling for a collaborative approach.

James Crosby, head of logistics at Cory Brothers, said:  "There is no quick and easy solution to this problem."

In November, bosses at the Ipswich freight company said the price of sending a container from China to England has increased five-fold in a year – and doubled in since October.

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Shipping a container in November last year cost $1,300-1,500. This November, it cost between $6,000-8,000.

The firm puts this increase down to a “perfect storm” of Covid, the build-up to Brexit and congestion within UK ports.

"It's time critical, because this is starting to hurt. Action is needed and it is needed at the highest levels," said Mr Crosby.

Andy Walker, head of policy and research at Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, said it had met with Suffolk Coastal MP Dr Therese Coffey to "raise issues with her" and "articulate the views of freight forwarders".

Andy Walker of Suffolk Chamber of Commerce

Andy Walker of Suffolk Chamber of Commerce - Credit: SUFFOLK CHAMBERS

"She's kindly taken it forward it forward to raise in government," Mr Walker added.

"We were also able to raise the issue with the British Chambers of Commerce who have also had some issues raised by retailers and freight forwarders in the Midlands.

"The British Chambers of Commerce have daily meetings and calls with people like Michael Gove and the treasury, so they can raise the issue in those meetings."

James Cartlidge, MP for South Suffolk, said he was also approached by local businesses who had been struggling because of the supply chain troubles.

He said: "I have spoken at length to a senior representative at Hutchinson Ports (who operate Felixstowe) in addition to transport ministers and the local MP, Therese Coffey.

South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge.

South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge. - Credit: OFFICE OF JAMES CARTLIDGE

"I have also discussed this matter with Huw Merriman MP, the chairman of the Transport Select Committee, and urged the him to investigate this issue and, in particular, the pricing pressure on UK firms. 

“I am assured that the Department for Transport are acutely aware of the situation at Felixstowe, other UK ports and across the global market.

"Fundamentally this is a matter of increased consumer demand, with people in the second stage of lockdown spending far less on holidays and much more on consumer goods, resulting in a dearth of containers in the necessary locations to supply that demand. 

“While there is no immediate silver bullet solution, I think that the regular contact between the Department for Transport and those on the frontline is crucial and encouraging, so that should there be actions the sector requests from government this can quickly be relayed.

"That said, it is of course difficult to directly influence the core issue of container scarcity and consequent price rises.

"I’m afraid I don’t foresee an immediate easing of the situation, though I understand there is some evidence that the rate of empty container return is starting to increase as the commercial incentive starts to kick in with shipping lines facing lost revenue if container scarcity worsens too much.”

Outside of the county, the British International Freight Association (BIFA) wrote to transport secretary Grant Shapps calling upon the government not to be "complacent". 

BIFA wrote: "In the immediate term whilst solutions largely lie with industry action, government can support this through providing sensible flexibilities and easements that enable industry solutions, principally around the movement of containers on and off ports.

"It is clear that whole sections of the economy are being reshaped at a speed beyond most forecasts in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, accelerating existing trends and introducing new disruptions.

"Brexit is also likely to have a role in this reshaping. We – government and industry together – should seize this opportunity to reform the conditions that would make acute freight congestion less likely in the future."