Blog: UK ports - gateways for growth

A sector overview from the British Ports Association, the national association for the sector, representing 400 ports and facilities around the UK that facilitate 86% of port activities.

Ports are critical to the UK economy, handling 95% of the UK’s international trade and providing vital gateways for economic success in the energy, tourism, recreation, and fishing industries. They often act as stewards of the local community; from offering educational schemes and facilitating community activities, to sponsoring breakfast clubs and accessibility projects.

The British Ports Association strongly argues that the sector is a catalyst for Britain’s prosperity and growth on a global scale, but if their transport links are not effectively maintained and improved, goods face congestion and delay, interrupting delivery to industries and their customers. The UK economy loses out because of this. Maintaining excellent surface access of ports to the wider transport network is a vital part of Britain’s economic prosperity. 


The sector is also critical national infrastructure and play an imperative role in providing well-paid jobs for their local communities, often in areas of high deprivation. They continue to invest in infrastructure, equipment, and their people at no cost to the Government. They play a vital role in driving regional and national economies, but they must be awarded equal opportunities to thrive, compete and maximise the benefits of easements and government policies.

Port investments are market-led and last year they invested in excess of £1.1bn in various development and projects. In terms of infrastructure, the sector asks for very little from the Government but they do rely on a modern transport infrastructure. The latter area is subject to sometimes competing demands, for example between passenger and freight-based projects, and especially budget constraints. 

The sector can also make a contribution to solving or reducing national transport problems, congestion and environmental damage caused by land modes by using shipping instead. 

Ownership and strategy

UK ports are predominantly privately owned and commercially managed, operating strategically and financially independent of Government. Just as the markets they serve vary, so too do ports themselves. The ports sector in the UK has changed substantially over the last twenty years. A process of deregulation has created a ports sector unique compared to many other countries. 

There are three main types of Statutory Harbour Authorities in the UK – private ports, municipal ports and trust ports, as well as a handful of facilities owned by parts of government. Freeports, which provide zones for growth and investment, are a new entity covering some port locations across the country. It will be interesting to see how these develop and also how the wider sector might be given similar tools to drive regional growth.


As mentioned over 95% of imports and exports by volume, and 75% by value still pass through the country’s ports. They support all maritime activity from securing the vital provision of goods, food and medicine, to facilitating offshore wind and marine recreation and tourism.  

Much of the cargo entering and leaving Britain is in the form of raw materials – oil, chemicals, petroleum, ores, grains and feedstuffs – the commodities needed to fuel the economy. Additionally ‘Finished goods’ cargo can include vehicles, fresh foods, steel, timber, building materials, machinery and consumer goods – to name but a few. As well as goods our sector facilitate around 60 million passengers and a range of other maritime activities from offshore energy, to marine tourism, leisure and fishing.

Regional contribution

Ports are critical economic hubs and are intricately linked to their hinterland economies, boosting employment and prosperity in their coastal communities and around the whole country through wider supply chain benefits.

Ports and harbours are often at the heart of their communities. Whatever their size, they are major providers of employment within their areas, and through leisure activities such as yachting, many contribute to local economies in other ways. Indeed the sector often offers educational schemes and facilitate community activities, to sponsoring breakfast clubs and accessibility projects. Unlike many businesses, ports are anchored to a specific location and therefore have a continuing interest in contributing to their surroundings. 

This blog was written as a feature for the 2022 State of the Maritime Nation Report.