A United Industry needs a United Government – what next for UK Shipping?

Date: Monday 21st October 2013

Venue: The UK Chamber of Shipping, 30 Park Street, London.  SE1 9EQ

Host: Mark Brownrigg OBE, Director-General, UK Chamber of Shipping

Speaker: Mark Brownrigg

Subject: A United Industry needs a united Government – what next for UK Shipping?

Report by James Brewer

21st-october-2013Mr Brownrigg began by addressing the issues of perception and influence in the context of the shipping industry in the UK.  In the last decades of the 20th century, the sense of decline was deeply embedded, he said.  There had been a feeling of a remote sector past its prime, facing negative publicity arising from accidents, pollution incidents, and loss of life in ferry disasters. “At the same time, we knew that many of these issues were being addressed, but that was not recognised.”

In an island nation, the public was “not aware, not understanding, not caring… Government the same! It is hard to seize the attention of government in an economy as large and diverse as ours – we are not Greece, Norway or Denmark.”

Even after the massive revival following the adoption of the tonnage tax, the lack of understanding, attention and care persisted.

Mr Brownrigg admitted: “This lack of political and public awareness is not some quirk of fate.  It is not the fault of politicians or indeed the man on the street.  We have to shoulder some of the blame, and be open to doing what is necessary to make this wrong right.”

The world had moved on, but our industry had not. “We did not have any true consciousness of public affairs work until the early 1990s, when we made our first big push.  It took a full 10 years to bear fruit… the fact is that other sectors had acted, while we had not.  Other industries have invested in public affairs, and they now reap the benefits both in political influence and public awareness.” To take just one example, the airline BA “employs more public affairs specialists than the shipping industry in total.”

Individual sectors had tried “but only in their silos” and Sea Vision 10 years ago helped recognise the value of common working but was aimed chiefly at profile and awareness among the general public. Government said that its departments were confused, “not knowing who to take issues to,” and found too many organisations purporting to represent the sector.

Because disparate groups claiming to be the voice of the industry “simply did not wash with parliament and government,” the UK Chamber was instrumental in developing Maritime UK as a coalition of major trade organisations, to harness collective lobbying power.

The approach to public affairs was ‘bottom up’ in educating MPs through an extensive programme of meetings, seminars, pamphlets and other methods. “By winning friends in parliament from across the political divide, we were able to put pressure on Government in new ways.  We were able to get real, meaningful debate among politicians – just see the Maritime UK website, where MPs, ministers and others regularly contribute their ideas through ‘guest articles.’ It shows MPs care about maritime services, they just did not necessarily know it.”

Fast forward to today, and we see a very different outlook, continued Mr Brownrigg. London International Shipping Week had just closed perhaps the most exciting and high profile sequence of maritime events – 70 of them – that the UK had seen in decades… “dynamic, buzzing success which went well beyond what was expected.” It had required “quite a substantial leap of faith to make it all [LISW] work.”

Government had recognised at last the political and economic value in collectively supporting the maritime sector. This was the culmination of several initiatives inspired by Maritime UK and its working in genuine partnership with the Department for Transport in particular. The Chamber leader said that “2013 has been the year when the present Government has become more pro-active and more joined-up.

“As a result, the whole maritime sector in the UK has gained a new spring in its step.” The international industry and other commentators had welcomed the reassertion by the UK and London of their belief in the sector, not only for heritage and history, but as an engine of economic growth.

“For the first time in decades, the world has seen the UK seize again the initiative that it once held naturally, before it began to take it for granted.”

Most importantly, a regular process of cross-departmental ministerial round-tables had been put in place bringing together Maritime UK services representatives and ministers from Transport, the Cabinet Office, Treasury and Business & Energy. These round-tables had met three times in 2013 to date, with a fourth meeting planned for November.  They had begun to develop a structured approach to the sector’s issues, and the intention was to broaden the group to include other ministries and industry partners.  London International Shipping Week had begun with a similar session attended by the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street, when themes included the importance of building a globally attractive and predictable environment for shipping companies to operate in the UK, preserving the pre-eminence of the UK and London as a global maritime cluster and addressing regulatory concerns.

Two industry/government Strategic Partnership Plans were in place, for shipping and for ports, and a third is underway for the maritime business services of the City and wider.

“We are much, much more effective together working on the bigger issues.”

There was a specific success for both Government and industry in the announcement that the support funding for the training of seafarers (SMarT) would be increased by 25% and extended by a year, supporting an additional 200 trainees a year. This was a programme that had been under threat less than two years earlier.

“In the UK, a door has opened and it is our job to walk through it,” said Mr Brownrigg.  “The time for working in individual sector silos is past. It is only through the industry coming together that we have been successful in bringing the different parts of Government together. We can only achieve our objectives if Government works as a single entity too.”

We had to aim for structures in relations with Government that would create a permanence of approach that would survive change, that would reach beyond elected terms of individual governments, and survive the loss of individual officials and ministers who made the partnership possible. So we had to work with the parliamentary Opposition to share the value of joint strategy.

“So often, shipping has tended to start on the back foot, in response to an incident or a crisis.  In this partnership, we are not doing that.  Instead we are highlighting the contribution we can make as an engine of economic growth.” This gave shipping the right to talk about the big issues of the day, “because if we genuinely believe we are important to the UK economy, then we have a right and responsibility to take part in the debate about its future. Importantly, it also encourages Government to view shipping as part of that debate.”

Drawing conclusions, Mr Brownrigg said: “Above all, we need today to rise above the old-style defeatist attitudes that there are no votes in shipping, that the media never gives us a good press.  We can be our own worst enemy, and we need now to cast that off.  It is not true anyway, when you look at it in the round.” There were votes – in port cities, in constituencies where there were shipbuilding and repair yards, in the City.

In shipping, ports and maritime business services, the industry contributed £32bn to the gross domestic product of the UK, nearly £9bn in taxes, and supported some 540,000 UK jobs. .. “and we are growing, even through the crisis.”

He said: “Hats off to the Government and particularly the present team of ministers and officials at the Department for Transport for their commitment, for ‘getting it’ early on in the process, for asking the industry how they could help, and for their pro-activity in every aspect.”

LISW was really only the catalyst for a much wider project, “which aims to change the way in which we work with Government on shipping and maritime services matters, long into the future.  We both – no, we all – have much more to do.”

Our chairman, Jim Davis, thanked Mr Brownrigg for his “excellent, if I may say so almost messianic message.  The value added by transportation is almost immeasurable.”

Of the cohesion described, “it has been a long time coming,” commented a member of the audience at question time.  One contributory factor was the industry getting together to produce the statistics alluded to –government had not been able to measure the industry and neither had the media.

Another delegate asked how prominent the insurance industry was in the processes outlined.  “They could make a major contribution,” he said. Mr Brownrigg replied that in Maritime UK there were P&I clubs, law firms, the Baltic Exchange and so on, but the structures generally do not tend to exist in some of the other insurance sectors.  One of the tasks ahead was to involve the City in a much broader way. “We have to make sure that all sectors are fully represented.”

Responding to comment that the majority of shipowners are now beneficially owned outside the UK (parallel with foreign ownership in the UK car industry and utilities, for instance), Mr Brownrigg declared: “Shipping is alive and kicking here.  Very much so, of course with international shareholders.” Mr Davis added: “The flag is one thing, the activity is another.”

Another delegate referred to rumours that the European Union was again considering the concept of a European flag. In 1989 the Commission proposed establishing on a voluntary basis a Community fleet, and a shipping register to be named Euros, but the plan was withdrawn after opposition from member states.  Mr Brownrigg was doubtful that the scheme would be revived, and he said, “it never was a flag, it was a badge.”

Mr Davis thanked the Chamber for its generous hospitality, and on behalf of IMIF wished Mr Brownrigg well for his future plans. The Chamber announced in July 2013 that Mr Brownrigg had decided to step down as director general from the end of the year, having been in the post since February 2003. In all, Mr Brownrigg has served the Chamber for more than 40 years. He will be succeeded, in a role designated chief executive, in January 2014 by Guy Platten, currently chief executive of Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd.