Kenny MacAskill calls for more control over Scotland's ports

New public bodies should be set up to oversee and regulate Scotland’s ports, according to East Lothian MP and former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill.

By Ian Swanson
Saturday, 19th February 2022, 4:55 am

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He made the call after raising questions about the ownership and interests of Forth Ports, which operates the Port of Leith and six other Scottish ports.

Forth Ports’ main shareholder is Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investment Board. “How can the interests of Scotland’s economy or the coastal communities on the Forth be best looked after by the trustees of a Canadian pension fund?” asked Mr MacAskill.

Kenny MacAskill questions how Scottish interests can be looked after by a Canadian pension fund. Picture: Peter Devlin.

And he pointed out that, as well as its Scottish ports, Forth Ports owned Tilbury docks in London, which he said carries more traffic than all its Scottish ports combined.

"How can there be an incentive to improve Scottish freight or ferry links, when your largest and most profitable port is on the Thames?” he asked.

Similarly, he said, Clydeport was owned by Peel Ports plc, part of Peel Properties based in Manchester, and their busiest port was Liverpool.

Mr MacAskill, who is deputy leader of Alba, said: “The Scottish Government should be addressing the ownership and operation of our principal ports.

"Ports and harbours are vital parts of our national infrastructure. The Scottish Government must reject the free market ethos they have copied from south of the border and take steps to protect Scotland’s national interest through establishment of a government department and public ports authorities for our key estuaries.

“The strategic interests of the Scottish economy and Scottish communities are losing out to those in competitor estuaries. The challenges are not restricted to the establishment of direct ferry services to Europe or an increase in cruise liner traffic but include shipyards and renewable energy construction sites where work is badly needed and jobs are at risk.”

In a paper on the issue, Mr MacAskill said before the privatisation of ports in 1992, the main harbours on the Forth were operated by Forth Ports Authority, a public agency, but now Scotland’s principal ports were being “drowned by ownership from the Thames and Mersey”.

He wrote: “Responsibility for ports and harbours has largely been devolved. However, the Scottish Government have followed the UK doctrine of seeing ports as mainly private ventures rather than vital aspects of public infrastructure.

“A dedicated section or department is therefore required in government to run, regulate and promote Scotland’s port and maritime interests.

“Public port authorities should be established to oversee and operate Scotland’s principal estuaries, able to regulate charges and consider wider public not just private monopoly needs.”

He said the Competition and Mergers Authority could be called in and pressure should be put on the owners to ensure Scottish interests were prioritised.

"If that is not done, and regulation is insufficient then other options, including the creation of alternative Scottish-based ports should be considered.”

Industry sources said Forth Ports was involved in major investments in Scotland, including the £40m renewable energy hub at Leith.

Forth Ports chief executive Charles Hammond said: “Forth Ports, which is registered and headquartered in Scotland, operates and invests in its ports, both north and south of the border in the best interests of all our stakeholders – our customers, our people, our communities and our shareholders.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "The Scottish Government actively supports the development of Scotland’s ports. Business Minister Ivan McKee chairs a monthly working group with port operators and other stakeholders which is driving efforts to increase direct shipments, including potential new ferry services linking Scotland to Europe so that Scottish exporters have more resilient routes to market."

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