Mr Robert Smith, manager of the Port of Ipswich, was a most welcome speaker
on 11 December. In every way an experienced rnanagoer with a great
knowledge of shipping and a keen eye to
business, he described the port's recent achievements and outlined further
aspirations. The wealth of detail he provided was always interesting and
often surprising, although it can only be sketchily
generalised in this report for the Newsletter.
Now owners of 21 ports, Associated British Ports (ABP) acquired the Port of
Ipswich in 1997. The Ipswich Port Authority had suffered badly in the
previous few years. Mr Smith didn't say so but members of this Society may
well suspect that much of the decline was due to uncertainty over the then
Government's intention to privatise the port.
However there would be little dispute with Mr Smith's description of the
port then as run down, with little modern warehousing and a devastating loss
of container trade - In 1994, Ipswich was
the UK's 5th largest container port, but all four container lines left in
ABP took over the port with the ability to invest in it. Focusing more on
the area's agricultural hinterland, they have built a new grain terminal
(the old one wasn't waterproof). There is a new 7-acre timber store on the
West Bank to allow for ro-ro expansion - the ferries returned in 2001 after
a six year gap. Furthermore, the acquisition of the Cliff Quay power station
site will help to ease the problem of lack of space. (In answer to a
question about decontaminating that site, Mr Smith explained that it was
much less of a problem because, unlike the old gas works site, it won't be
used for housing - the site can be capped and then piled for new commercial
There have also been other investments. The lock-gates to the Wet Dock were
replaced at a cost of £1.1m so as to develop the marinas; in fact the lock
is only used about once a fortnight by Anglo-Nordem vessels and less by
Paul's, so the gates are mostly a facility for yachts. And the
multi-functional nature of ABP's investment is also indicated by their early
acquisition of a new fleet of fork-lift trucks, the creation of a conference
centre in the ground floor level of the Custom House and the building of The
Last Anchor bistro.
Despite the investments, the variety and the upturn in some parts of its
business, Mr Smith made it clear that the Port of Ipswich faces some major
challenges. The value of trade hasn't yet returned to the best pre- 1994
figures. And the short sea routes across the North Sea are so competitive
that Ipswich has to provide such services at half the price of those on the
Humber. The work involved is just as demanding as that in a larger port but
the returns are lower. On the credit side, Mr Smith praised the good
flexible workforce at Ipswich.
Looking more to the future, Mr Smith emphasised the Port's wish to see the
building of an East Bank Link Road for the expansion of their business. He
also envisaged that all commercial shipping will be on the lower river (i.e.
not in the Wet Dock) within 3-5 years.
In discussion about the possibility of a bridge crossing of the Wet Dock he
outlined the problems - it couldn't be a fixed bridge (the highest yacht
masts are 30m) yet the road should never be closed to traffic. Perhaps a
Dutch-type solution of two parallel bridges might be possible.
Yes, it was a fascinating talk - worthy of a bigger audience in our
comfortable new venue, the upstairs hall of the Museum Street Methodist
Church. Anyone interested in Ipswich can't help being aware of its history,
in which the port has been in many ways the centre of our town. Commercial
shipping has now moved down river, as in most other parts of the world, and
from now onwards the Waterfront (Wet Dock) will become a centre of a
different kind. But Mr Smith reminded us very strongly that the port, the
original raison d'etre of Ipswich, still exists and has a future.