On Track for a Sustainable Future

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In conversation

Alastair Welch

ABP Director Southampton

New Director Alastair Welch tells Southampton Magazine about his priorities and plans for prosperity.

Associated British Ports Southampton’s new Director Alastair Welch is the man charged with future-gazing.

Preparing for the next 40 to 50 years is the priority for Alastair and his team to ensure the port can continue to be a vital focus for exports and goods coming into the UK.

"Many cities in our country bear the scars of short-term planning.

“Businesses such as airports and ports are significant assets and it is only right to plan for the long-term. We have plans in place for the next five to ten years for the business but we need to be looking further ahead.

“A key activity is to work very hard to engage with business, politicians and the community to discuss what the port might look like and could be doing in 50 years time,” he explained.

The figures for Southampton are impressive. The port contributes £1bn to the UK economy each year and supports 15,000 jobs across the region.

From his office, Alastair has a captivating view of the day to day activity that has made the port so successful.

Double-deck freight train wagons packed with gleaming cars fresh from the factories snake their way to the dockside, while glittering cruise ships that bring millions of pounds to the city of Southampton prepare for their latest voyage.

Southampton handles 900,000 vehicles a year and is Europe’s leading cruise turn-around port.

Over in the western docks, DP World runs a pin-point precise operation with capacity for 35,500 containers. A truck is guaranteed to be turned around in one hour, making Southampton the UK’s most efficient container port.

And then there’s the bulk cargoes such as grains, gypsum and scrap metals.

Each year 14m tonnes of commodities are handled (excluding liquid bulk). The Port of Southampton is the UK’s number one export port with 90 per cent of exports going to destinations outside of the EU. In a post-Brexit world, the port has taken on an even more significant role and this has been recognised by Alastair.

“Our being a trading nation has never been more important,” he said. “Exporting products is vital for our future prosperity.”

Alastair is clear about where the challenge for the future lies and it all comes down to the precious commodity of space.

“We have been very effective in getting the port to where it currently is and the challenge now is how we take it forward making the best use of the assets we have.”

With growth predicted in its four key sectors of automotive, containers, cruise and bulk materials, thoughts will inevitably turn to physical expansion.

Alastair revealed that a number of port tenants were looking to decamp some activities to the recently purchased Marchwood Industrial Estate to free up space.

But inevitably questions will be raised once more about the sensitive subject of Dibden Bay. An exhaustive and costly planning process running from 2000 until 2004 saw battle lines drawn on either side of Southampton Water over the proposed £600m container port facility.

In the end it was former Transport Minister Tony McNulty who announced the Government’s decision to turn down development of the site.

Whilst the Government fully recognises the nation’s and industry’s needs for additional container port capacity in order to meet future economic demand, every proposed port development must be justified on its own merits.

‘One important factor in the making of this decision was the environmental impact of the proposals on internationally protected sites,’ said Alastair.

The proposed Dibden Bay site, across the River Test from the current port, was created by the disposal of dredged materials in earlier decades and has become a site of internationally important wildlife habitats. The UK Government agency English Nature said the development would have a detrimental effect on two Special Areas of Conservation, one Special
Protection Area, and eight Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Alastair is keen not to ruffle feathers once more with careless talk about Dibden Bay but in measured tones he said: “Dibden Bay is a site for consideration as part of the long-term planning work we are doing to consider what the port might look like in the next 40 to 50 years.

“Fifteen years ago our plans for Dibden Bay were for a container port with large cranes.

“Our investment in the existing container port now means we can support container operations in the current location into the future.

“It is appropriate for us to consider Dibden Bay as part of the mix.”

Coming from an aviation background, Alastair joins other high-flyers from the industry.

David Noyes, CEO Carnival UK (ex British Airways), Kevin George, CEO at Red Funnel, who was previously Managing Director at Monarch Airlines, and Dave Lees, who is Managing Director at Southampton Airportare all helping to shape Southampton’s future.

Alastair has extensive experience of the transport sector, including Heathrow’s Terminal 4 and London Southend Airport and is recognised for his operational, business development and customer service skills. He is already making his mark in Southampton.

“I am looking at how we can put the customer first in everything we do. The team who manage the port and the staff who make it what it is, have been very effective in getting us to this stage.

“I am literally removing walls within the offices so we can work together, communicate in a better way and understand what we are doing day to day.

“We are upgrading railway sidings at present and multi million pound improvements have been made to the fruit terminal and on an on-going basis we are maintaining roads, quaysides and channels,” he said.

He is clear the port cannot operate in isolation. It is inextricably linked with the wider city and the region beyond.

The ABP Half Marathon has proved to be hugely popular and in 2017 there will be a full marathon course too. It is a great example of the port getting involved in the lifeblood of the city and Alastair is taking a particular interest in the 2017 event.

“We are pleased to continue to support this event and I plan to run the half marathon if I start my training soon!

“This event is a great example of the port and city working together and there is more we can and will be doing in the future.”

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