Council's anger over £25m post-Brexit border check 'white elephant'

6 July 2022

A purpose-built £25m facility will “remain closed for the foreseeable future” after the government U-turned on post-Brexit border checks. 

The Border Control Post (BCP) was built in Portsmouth for import checks on animal and plant products due to come into force this month, but these were abandoned in April. They will be replaced with a “new controls regime in 2023”.

The BCP has been described as a “white elephant” while Portsmouth City Council (PCC) has complained it is facing “phenomenal costs”.

Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson (Lib Dem), leader of PCC, said: “The most serious issue is the phenomenal cost the council has had to absorb. The team worked tirelessly to make sure the Border Control Post was completed on time. We raised concerns this was an expensive project, with a difficult timeline.”

The council had received £17.1m of funding to build the facility, meaning the council has been left “£7.8m out of pocket”. He said the facility was “highly specialised, with limited use except for the purpose it was built”.

The running costs were planned to be covered through an EU infrastructure levy on imports, “but with the decision to put this on hold, we have no way of recovering the costs and no offer of financial support from the government,” Vernon-Jackson said.

He continued: “As a council we have been left to foot the government's bill, when budgets are already stretched. We followed their requirements, made sure this would meet their deadlines, and now we are faced with an empty BCP for the foreseeable future and liable for £7.8m plus running costs.

“We can't just turn the lights off and absorb the costs, in order to know the BCP will operate properly if required in the future, we need to keep the facilities running to a degree to make sure it remains working.”

Vernon-Jackson called on government to provide a “sensible solution”, pay off the remaining shortfall, and provide clarity on what future border controls will be required.

Jacob-Rees Mogg, Brexit secretary, previously insisted Brexit-related impacts on trade were “few and far between”.

Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, said the decision to scrap import checks was “the right decision” for the industry but it came “two years too late” for port operators, who were only given three months' notice.

He described BCPs as “white elephants”, as new import controls being considered do not require such facilities.

“Our industry has built numerous Border Control Post facilities at great cost and effort, both to the public and private sector. Government is now suggesting these won’t be needed. Most ports need to recoup operating costs for their facilities and this is traditionally done through levying a charge on importers, which of course is not currently an option. We therefore need the government to allocate resources and funding accordingly.

“Ministers have also said a revised regime not involving physical checks is being developed so we need to discuss what the BCPs can be used for and if government will be able to fund their modification or even removal to prevent them being costly white elephants.”

The facility in Portsmouth was due to employ 32 port health staff and 35 port operatives, as well as official vets and technical officers to inspect goods.

The government has been approached for comment.

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