Or so the story goes.
It might come as a surprise to learn, then, that London’s docks are back – on a bigger scale than ever before. Running almost 3km along the Thames estuary is a £1.5bn new megaport that has literally redrawn the coastline of Essex, and wants to make equally radical shifts to the UK’s consumer supply chain.
Welcome to DP World London Gateway, the latest international trophy of the oil-rich emirate of Dubai, and one of the biggest privately funded infrastructure projects the UK has ever seen. It is a gargantuan undertaking (on the scale ofCrossrail, Terminal 5 or HS2) that’s projected to have a bigger economic impact than the Olympics – but you might not even know it was happening. The port has been up and running for almost two years, with two of its six berths now complete and a third well on the way. But, unlike the daily controversy of runways and commuter trains, the cumbersome business of how 90% of our goods reach us from all over the world doesn’t tend to impinge on the public psyche.
Satnav certainly hasn’t caught up. As we drive out to the sprawling sandy landscape, the blue dot floats out into the Thames, from whose depths this new quayside has been summoned. Over 30 million tonnes of silt was dredged to make this artificial land mass, which extends 400m beyond the original shoreline, a process that saw the largest migration of animals in Europe – with 320,000 newts, water voles and adders relocated to a new nature reserve nearby. The sheer scale is impossible to comprehend from the ground: the facility is twice the size of the City of London.
“You used to be able to see the water from the road,” grumbles my taxi driver, as we glide along the pristine tarmac of the privately funded roads from the nearby town of Stanford-le-Hope, past signs for the estuary hamlets of Mucking and Fobbing. “Now they’ve moved the coast, all we see is sand and cranes.”
But what cranes they are. Rising 138m up into the Essex skies, they are the tallest quay cranes in the world – a line of skeletal giants beneath which the London Eye could happily be rolled. Made in China and shipped fully assembled, they are here to lure the world’s largest container ships (which are as long as four football pitches end-to-end). Such behemoths, and the 18,000 containers’ worth of cargo they can carry, have never stood a chance of making it near the capital, until now. When the port is finished, it will be able to unload six of them at once.
“We’re bringing shipping back to where it should be,” says Andrew Bowen, the engineering director here since 2004, who oversaw the dredging of a 100km trench along the Thames estuary to make room for these giants of the sea to get closer to the centre of consumption. The location of this vast new enterprise is not simply a question of reviving a lost tradition, but of common-sense logistics. “Currently all cargo comes into Felixstowe or Southampton and is trucked to vast depots in the Midlands, then a lot of it is trucked back to London,” says Bowen. “It just doesn’t make sense. By being here, we’re closer to two-thirds of the UK market, and we have the biggest logistics park in Europe right on our doorstep.”
When the port is fully up and running, DP World says it will save 65m HGV miles and take 2,000 trucks off the road per day – a compelling argument for environmental and economic efficiency. The company’s business plan addresses a more fundamental change in the supply chain, too. With the rise of inner-city express shops, particularly in south-east England, supermarkets no longer have the onsite storage capacity they once did. London Gateway comes to the rescue with its 230-hectare logistics park (goes the sales pitch), giving the ship-to-warehouse-to-store service in one.
It’s a seductive proposition that lured Marks & Spencer to sign up as one of the first tenants in 2013, with plans for a £200m distribution centre here, until it got cold feet and pulled out a year later, the project taking longer than expected. Undeterred, DP World has built the first showcase shed itself, with another one developed with Prologis about to open, and a “huge deal with a major household name” about to be announced, it says.
The first such shed is already stuffed with aisle upon aisle of children’s toys, Sylvanian Families facing off against electric scooters. Last year it was a winter wonderland of Frozen toys. “We unpack these boxes from China and stick on different prices, depending if they’re going to Harrods or Argos,” the manager tells me candidly, before dashing off to deal with several tonnes of oranges that have just arrived from South Africa.
We drive further across the Martian landscape, where JCBs are heaving sand to prepare the ground for another chunk of the 100,000 sq m of shed-city that will one day arrive here, and come to an office building that overlooks the docks. Inside, teams of people sit at screens examining what looks like a fiendishly complicated game of Tetris.
Eight hours before each ship arrives, the planning team receives a file that tells them exactly what’s on board and where it needs to go. Each file is presented as a series of cross-sectional slices, like a rainbow-coloured CT-scan through the length of the vessel. Thankfully computer algorithms and a handy software programme called Autostow handle the rest, calculating container distribution by various parameters, from weight to port of arrival. The gigantic cranes that get the containers from ship to shore are still manually operated, by a crew that includes the UK’s first female quay crane driver, a former beautician from Basildon.
Standing on top of one of the cranes, we look down on spindly-legged shuttle carriers zooming around like creatures from Star Wars, searching for containers to pick up and take back to the stacks that sprawl off into the distance. The stacks are managed by fully automated cranes on rails, which glide around arranging the great piles of containers in the right order for collection, like obsessively tidy robots. Truck collection is automated too: when a vehicle arrives, it is scanned and told which bay to go to, where a robot-crane dutifully loads the correct container, and off it goes – a turnaround which usually happens in less than half an hour. There’s a rail line too, which the port hopes will ultimately take 30% of the cargo.
The level of automation allows London Gateway to stay open no matter the weather, when Felixstowe and Southampton are forced to close – another advantage DP World is keen to trumpet, as the new kid on a very established block. “It’s a tough time to have opened a brand new facility like this from scratch,” says Olaf Merk, ports and shipping expert at the OECD. “There is a lot of extra capacity in Europe, and rates have hit rock bottom, so it’s very difficult for a new port to take business away from more established terminals – especially when Felixstowe and Southampton are growing, and Liverpool is opening a deep-sea port too.”
He says it will only get harder for London Gateway to attract business, given that the world’s major shipping lines are increasingly grouped in a limited number of alliances, which are already committed to existing ports and concentrating on rationalising their services, as their ships grow ever bigger.
Despite the apparent hum of activity, the port isn’t yet performing as well as hoped: the main obstacle is that it hasn’t yet secured a service from Asia, where the biggest ships come from. (Those toys from China, it turns out, were trucked here from Felixstowe.)
Still, Neil Davidson, senior analyst at Drewry shipping consultants, is optimistic. “London Gateway is facing the challenges common to any new port,” he says. “The big challenge is to convince the supply chain to change its ways. It’s facing a lot of inertia and it takes time to build a critical mass, but it’s not doing badly. DP World is in it for the long game.” He says the port processed 300,000 containers last year, a tiny fraction of the projected 3.5m it hopes to achieve when it is complete, but it’s not a bad start for the first full year of operation.
The day I visit, the 330m-long Cap San Antonio has just arrived, laden with meat and wine from South America, soon joined by the Cap Spencer from Australia, carrying more fresh produce and garments from Sri Lanka. So what do we send back in return? Fresh air is Britain’s biggest export. Followed by rubbish. Apart from empty containers, paper waste makes up the bulk of what goes the other way. It’s shipped, via other ports, to China, where it is turned into boxes that are packed with goods and sent back again. And so the global cycle goes on. Not that you would ever know it was happening, just 20 miles down the river from London.