INCREASING TRADE=CORPORATE PLUNDER
SOUTHAMPTON, UK. The modern-day story of Southampton's docks encapsulates the ever-increasing conflict between the corporate demand for economic growth on the one hand, and environmental protection coupled with people's quality of life on the other.
Associated British Ports, the large company which operates many of the ports around Britain's coastline, regards Southampton as the 'jewel in the crown', ripe for expansion to cater for the new breed of large container ships which criss-cross the world's oceans. Half of the UK's trade with the Far East goes through Southampton. In 1998, the docks handled 850,000 container units and more than 35 million tonnes of cargo. Over 500,000 new cars pass over the quayside every year - around 70 per cent of them for export. The port's position as number one in cruise shipping was assured in 1997 with the renewal of contracts with cruise companies Cunard and P&O. Andrew Kent, ABP's regional manager, said: 'The port continues to thrive and we are very excited about future expansion.' An important plank in this major expansion is the ambitious corporate proposal to build a huge new container terminal. The terminal would be built just outside the city of Southampton in the so-called 'Waterside area' at Dibden Bay, opposite the current port. The Waterside area lies between the New Forest and Southampton Water. Dibden Bay is a 'strategic gap' between the settlements of Hythe and Marchwood. It provides an open vista from Southampton, a wildlife corridor to the New Forest from the Waterside, and one of the few remaining undeveloped areas on Southampton Water.
Dibden Bay has had virtually every protective designation slapped on it you could think of. Its 240 hectares of open grazing marsh and mudflats form part of an internationally important wildlife haven notable for its diversity and number of birds. The bay forms part of the Solent and Southampton Water Special Protection Area (SPA) under the European Union Birds Directive, and is a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.
Hythe to Calshot Marshes, which includes the bay, has been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because it includes extensive areas of saltmarsh and mudflats, supports a high number of rare grasses, and provides feeding and roosting sites for migratory and over-wintering waders and other birds. More than 1 per cent of the global population of dark-bellied Brent geese frequent the area, as well as large numbers of teal, widgeon, ringed plover, black-tailed godwit and many other birds.
The grassland behind the shore is not part of the SPA or the SSSI, but does support rare plants, insects and wintering birds, and is a local authority-designated Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC). The multitude of designations for environmental protection does not end there. Part of the site is also included in the candidate Solent and Isle of Wight Maritime Special Area of Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive.
Bear with me. There is more. The container terminal would adjoin the New Forest, one of the most important heathlands in the UK and home to many rare plants, birds and animals. The area is of international significance for its woodlarks, Dartford warblers and nightjars. The New Forest, once William the Conqueror's hunting preserve and now one of England's biggest tourist attractions, was even shortlisted by the British government for consideration as a World Heritage site.
In the summer of 1997, ABP unveiled their ambitious plans for Southampton port expansion at the first meeting of the Dibden Forum, a carefully selected audience supposedly 'representing local community, environmental and business interests'. The total area proposed for development is 325 hectares (ha), including over 2 kilometres of quayside, 150 ha of hardstanding for containers, 50 ha for a rail marshalling yard with 12 tracks, 40 ha of support services and administration, and 90 ha of intertidal and seabed dredging.
The port construction phase would last 10 years and, when complete, would involve 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-per-year operation (including continuous noise and light pollution), 6,100 vehicle movements per day, an estimated 52 per cent increase on 1995 traffic flows on local roads by 2011, increased contamination and pollution from spills and leaks, and total loss of foreshore mudflats, grazing marsh and the strategic gap between Southampton and neighbouring communities on the western side.
Despite all of this, ABP promised that port expansion offered 'real environmental improvements'. In an interview and 2-page spread putting forward ABP's case in the local newspaper, Captain Jimmy Chestnutt, ABP's deputy port manager in Southampton, explained: 'We intend to build ... a specially created tidal creek which will be a great addition to the environment and replace bird feeding grounds, at present being eroded, with new ones.' He continued, 'The port [authority] has put environmental responsibilities at the heart of its proposals'.
On the other hand, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) which, along with English Nature, had been consulted by ABP, were not convinced that ABP would 'improve' the environment, having already warned that the piecemeal planning approach to port expansion represented 'the very real risk of death by a thousand cuts for the wildlife sites'. According to RSPB senior conservation officer Chris Corrigan, 'Changing the mud flats is still a very new science and we do not know if it will work'. Indeed, a similar case at Felixstowe, where a new wildlife site was created, did not provide a home for the same types of birds.
A major focus of concern for local residents would be the inevitable increase in port-related traffic congestion and pollution. ABP admit that two-thirds of containers would come by road or rail rather than via sea routes, the preferred government option. Port access to Dibden Bay would increase pressure on the local trunk road which is already snarled-up at peak times. As a sweetener, ABP offered at one stage to contribute to Hampshire County Council's existing plans to upgrade the road, although this offer now appears to have been quietly dropped. It remains an open question how the council will square Dibden Bay development with its obligations under the Road Traffic Reduction Act (Local Targets), which requires local authorities to limit - then reverse - the growth in local road traffic levels. ABP responded: 'We've studied the traffic implications for five years and we're proposing light rail developments and other environmentally sensitive solutions.'
Environmental concerns for Dibden Bay and the surrounding area may ultimately be outweighed by the alleged dependence of the regional - and national - economy on Southampton's port. ABP claimed: 'The continuing success of the Port of Southampton means we're nearing the time when Dibden Bay will be needed to support the growth in the UK's international trade'. Company management contended on the basis of 'independent economic studies' that 'more than 10,000 jobs are directly related to port business' and that the new port 'would create 3,000 new jobs for Hampshire'.
According to Paul Vickers, chairman of the local residents group, which opposes port expansion, the figure of 10,000 jobs related to the port is 'misleading'. Half that number relates to local employers operating within the port authority area - such as Esso, shipbuilding company Vospers and the military port. The remaining 5,000 jobs in the port itself 'include car workers, Martini factory workers, car component, cruise, grain and fruit workers. None of these have any relation to the container port.'
Vickers added, 'We have it in a letter from P&O that the Southampton Container Terminal supports only 500 full-time jobs.' As for the 3000 new jobs allegedly on offer, Vickers pointed out that over one-third of these would be one-off construction jobs. As for the rest, 'The number of new full time jobs could be debated endlessly'. In fact, the spectre of increasing port automation and increasing efficiency in port operations loomed large, casting doubt on the large numbers of jobs ABP offered. Ironically, at around the same time, ABP quietly announced 150 company job losses at their other ports around the country. The insecurity of dock-related employment, and the extent to which workers' rights will be trampled upon when corporate profit is threatened, has been amply demonstrated by the story of the Liverpool dockers as documented, for example, by John Pilger in Hidden Agendas.
ABP argues that without the Dibden Bay scheme, the port of Southampton will decline and jobs lost. International trade would bypass the city and the UK as a whole. 'If container vessels were forced into European [sic] ports, the extra cost of shipping would result in increased prices in the high street and more expensive exports. Current trade may be taken away, and jobs, too.'
ABP wishes to see Southampton develop as a 'hub port', receiving cargo from deep sea ships for onward shipment on feeder vessels to a number of smaller ports. The local residents group has researched ABP's stated aim towards increased trans-shipment and remains sceptical: '75-80 per cent of the containers on ships entering or leaving the English Channel are related to mainland Europe because of its larger economy, and consequently more than one call is made at Continental ports. It is illogical to believe that containers are going to be landed in Southampton for shipment across to the Continent.'
ABP is supported in its plans for Dibden Bay port development by Southampton's Labour-led city council and the city's Labour MPs, but not by the politicians who represent the people in and around the New Forest and the Waterside area; in other words, the communities most likely to be directly affected by port expansion. Local residents, who have amassed a wealth of information opposing ABP's position, question the need for expansion when the company had until recently been selling and leasing much of their land.
There are suspicions that ABP would like to shift some of its existing port activity to Dibden Bay, freeing up land elsewhere to sell to property developers, as it has done in the past, and as it is now proposing to do again . A spokesman for ABP responded: 'Some years ago our parent company sold some land for development that was not suitable for port use. The port is busier than ever now. Everything we have is being used as intensively as possible. We urgently need more land.'
But there is evidence that Southampton's port is being used inefficiently. Dr Caroline Lucas, Green MEP for the south-east of England, wrote to Margot Wallström, the European Commissioner for the Environment, asking her to intervene to protect Dibden Bay because of its EU- protected status, and enclosed figures showing that 'the existing port is being used at a level of efficiency far below that which is normal for the industry'.
Local campaigners also point out that there is sufficient spare capacity at alternative locations in the UK: 'Felixstowe and Thamesport both have spare capacity available or coming on stream, equivalent to Southampton's current throughput.' The possibility of developing an alternative location at the former Shell Haven refinery site within the Port of London was summarily rejected by ABP's Group Chief Executive when it was suggested by Dr Julian Lewis, a Conservative New Forest MP. The battle lines appear to have been set for a long drawn-out public enquiry starting in autumn 2001.
ABP's argument that port expansion has to go ahead on the edge of the New Forest is one which local residents are in a strong position to counter. Slowly but surely, people are becoming aware that economic globalisation is not an abstract phenomenon, but is a process which hits home if left unchecked. The heartening news is that people are prepared to learn about the issues, to see that preservation of biodiversity, local communities and quality of life are interdependent, and to defend these interests with vigour and, one hopes, some success.
David Cromwell is an oceanographer and writer based in Southampton. His first book, 'Private Planet', is published in the UK in June (Jon Carpenter, £12.99). More at: www.private-planet.com