The Port of London Authority’s operations cover 95 miles of the River Thames – and they play a crucial role in the many areas from commercial and leisure, to economic growth and sustainability. We recently spoke to them about their work and the exciting opportunities that can be unlocked across London’s Ports.

Q. The move to containerisation had a major impact on London’s Docklands, causing large swathes of former docklands such as Canary Wharf to be transformed into commercial property and a move downstream, how has this transformed the role of London’s ports?

Port operations on the Thames continue to be part of the supply chains keeping people across London and the South East supplied with food, fuel, medicines and other essentials.  They are also a central route for UK manufactured goods to be exported. [emaillocker id=”71749″]

This key role is underlined by the continuing private investment in large terminals and warehousing in the Port of London.  The new Tilbury2 port provides enhanced links for trade with Europe and the DP World London Gateway container port continues to attract new services.  Earlier this year they handled the largest container ship in the world, HMM Algerciras.  The capacity for scale movements and increased automation has increased the efficiency of shipping and supported the competitiveness of the port.

Port of London terminals handled over 54 million tonnes of cargo in 2019, making it the second largest port in the UK and the largest in the south of the country, growing 20% over the past five years compared to an overall 3% fall in the tonnage handled by all UK major ports.  Additionally, DfT statistics showed that the Port of London was once again the largest port in the UK in the first half of this this year. 

Q. How vital is Thames in the movement of goods intra-city and what opportunities does it present for logistics?

The Thames is the UK’s busiest inland waterway for freight.  It is an essential, low carbon, part of London’s transport mix, traditionally handling construction materials and waste movements.  Some 4.8 million tonnes of materials were moved by river last year keeping a quarter of million lorry loads off London’s congested roads.

The use of the river for moving freight is backed by a Mayoral policy which safeguards key sites for cargo handling.  In recent years we have invested £10m in returning the safeguarded Peruvian Wharf in East London to operations.  The adjacent Royal Primrose Wharf has also been acquired for reactivation, forming part of a wider marine/industrial hub. 

These investments back the scope to accommodate more heavy freight, linking consolidation centres and aggregate terminals in the east to central London, as well as to develop more small-scale freight movements for last mile deliveries, serving changing patterns of demand.  An example is the recent launch of the DHL parcel river service from Wandsworth to Bankside Pier.

Q. There are discussions about the institution of a freeport for London post-Brexit, what are the authority’s thoughts on the subject?

A compelling Thames bid is being developed by Forth Ports and DP World London Gateway.  This will meet key selection criteria, including: opportunities for levelling up deprived communities’ chances; catalysing centres of investment; and innovation in low carbon technology.

Q. How does the Port of London Authority help support the Thames Estuary economy?

At the PLA our roles support the economy in many ways.  Our core navigational safety role ensures that vessels can travel unimpeded, whether cargo ships carrying imports or exports, ferries carrying passengers or barges moving materials.  The environment is an area of increasing focus, with our work to protect and enhance habitats alongside leading the UK ports industry in areas of air quality.

In recent years we have advocated for the potential of the Thames through the 20-year development framework, the Thames Vision.  Convening people around a shared vision has firmly put the river back on the map as a key piece of infrastructure, with a major role to play in long term sustainable growth.

In terms of numbers, the Port of London Economic Impact Study, SQW Spring 2020, estimated direct employment in the port sector at almost 31,500 FTEs, generating a direct GVA of around £3.2bn. When wider impacts, such as supply chain activity and the spending of wages, were included it was estimated that around 48,000 FTEs and £4.5bn of GVA were dependent on this economic activity, around half of this impact relating to riverside boroughs and districts. The study demonstrates the scale of the port sector and the important role it plays in the economies of London, Essex and Kent as well as UK-wide impacts.

Q. How can the Thames support the green recovery of London from the covid-19 crisis?

At the PLA we are supporting recovery and building towards a more sustainable future.  Innovation in transport and logistics on the Thames can support the improved functioning of the city and region. 

Among the fundamentals are the low carbon benefits of moving goods by river.  We are building on this with the first evidence-based Air Quality Strategy for a UK port and a ground-breaking roadmap for the emissions reduction on inland vessels on the Thames.   We play a key role by convening Thames operators, trialing and adopting new technology: we are the first UK port to operate a hybrid pilot cutter as part of our fleet.

The refreshed Thames Vision that we will be developing over the next 12 months will have energy transition and decarbonisation at its centre.  Now looking out to 2050, it will set out a long-term view of sustainable growth as we build a green recovery.

This will frame the role the Thames can play in the development of the Net Zero economy through green infrastructure to support maritime activity, as well as wider needs.  Freeport status would be a catalyst for this as will our work with the Thames Estuary Growth Board, for example on hydrogen infrastructure.

We will also reflect the scope to make more of the river for passenger transport, promoting active travel with increased bike capacity and walking routes from the Thames Path.

Q. Biodiversity and wildlife have been emphasised and there are many natural assets across the region, how does the Authority help support these?

We promote biodiversity in the Thames in a variety of ways.  This ranges from supporting habitat creation and maintenance to water quality projects, campaigns and resources.  An example is the ‘Cleaning the Thames’ map, which identifies planned litter clean-ups that can be signed up to.  We work in partnership with Thames 21, the Zoological Society of London and other stakeholders.