Wednesday 6 November could turn out to be a very significant day for Felixstowe.
At around 11pm on Wednesday night, the MOL Caledon, a 58,000-tonne container ship carrying fruit and wine from South Africa, will dock at the London Gateway.
Flying the Liberian flag from Cape Town for Mitsui OSK Lines it will become the first scheduled commercial vessel to dock at London’s new deep-water port.
Felixstowe will begin to face the toughest competition it has had since its own growth heyday, which itself brought about the demise of the old ports of London and Liverpool. What goes around comes around.
As a country we probably have little to say, although the new port will be highly automated, and so employ fewer staff. The port at Felixstowe will undoubtedly feel the effects, and it’s doubtful that the present public relations campaigns will do much to persuade shipping lines not to take advantage of these new facilities.
Companies such as Marks & Spencer have seen the advantages of the new park. M&S are building a new distribution centre beside the new port, combining 150 existing centres across the country into just three. Logistics group Uniserve is also opening on the park.
What will be the effect on Felixstowe? For the town the real concern is not the Port of Felixstowe. Foreign-owned it’s just as likely to be closed on a whim if it fails to make enough profit for its owners, Hong Kong’s Hutchison Whampoa. Last year it handled over 40% of total UK container traffic. If that goes will its owners care about our town? That’s doubtful.
The real answer for this peninsular is to attract new enterprises. We need a business park. Practically every other town in the country has an industrial and commercial area. Felixstowe has always put all its eggs into one, foreign-owned, basket.
A new innovation area could feed upon the initiatives at BT’s Adastral Park at nearby Martlesham. They research, experiment and innovate. The Colneis peninsular could become the manufacturing centre for these new high-tech projects. Despite the recent bungling of our councils the town remains an attractive place to live, and BT has a store of skilled professionals who could be utilised.
Every decade Trinity College, the third largest land-owned in the country, has cajoled the planners into agreeing another housing estate. Felixstowe has gained nothing in return. At least some of our brightest children should have bursaries to allow them to attend this Cambridge college. Some years ago I asked that 20 acres of land be set aside to create a Centre of Building Excellence for the East of England. It was calmly ignored by Trinity, Bidwells, their agents, and our councils. It’s still a good idea.
We must not forget that Felixstowe is a resort town. It has a lot to offer, potentially. Many suggestions proposed over the years have been ignored by our councillors. That it should attempt to retain its Edwardian character has been largely destroyed by the chewing-gum bespattered grey mournfulness of shared space. Even its Spa Pavilion, Herman de Stern (planned to be a theatre) and the publicly-owned Bartlet have been rejected as places of public resort, even, in one case, being burnt to the ground the day after planning permission for Cell Block South was granted.
As a resort it needs to adapt. It seems our theatre has been abandoned in favour of a new carbuncle, or pier, work upon which will start next year. Public ownership giving way to private profit, perhaps. Too many buildings stand empty, often alongside barren ground where once stood fine buildings that attracted visitors to the town. Beach Road railway station once had over 30,000 passengers in one day, now all we see are weeds.
We need to work together. The councils need to be more open to discussion. They are not always right, unfortunately we have plenty of examples that prove that to be true.
There is energy and enthusiasm in the area but too often its been brow-beaten or ignored. Perhaps the slow demise of the Port will open a few eyes. Let’s hope that’s the way it will happen rather than a sudden decision, taken thousands of miles away, that will destroy the Port, and badly damage the peninsular.