Britain once ruled the waves: it can do again

Diane Gilpin from the Smart Green Shipping Alliance outlines her wish list for the UK government to bolster the island’s maritime credentials.

Last month the vast grey hulk of the UK’s new aircraft carrier steamed into Portsmouth harbour, the Royal Navy hailing it as evidence of the country’s maritime greatness.

As carriers go, HMS Queen Elizabeth certainly is great, albeit she won’t have any planes until 2020 or be fully operational till 2023.

Constructed from 80,000 tonnes of steel, the ship is a fine example of collaboration and expertise across the nation’s shipyards, from Merseyside and Rosyth to Govan and Portsmouth.

Over 500,000 people are employed in maritime industries, according to Maritime UK, which represents the country’s shipowners, ports and wider marine business services.

The sector contributes £22bn ($29bn) a year to the UK economy. The UN’s International Maritime Organisation is based on the banks of the Thames in London. Some waves are still ruled from Britain.

With HMS Prince of Wales still to come, UK yards will have work for a while longer. But building huge military ships for our own navy every couple of decades does not equal a healthy sector.

Once the ruler of the seas, Britain’s great yards and their associated cities. Belfast, Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool and Southampton used to churn out vast commercial vessels.

Not any longer.

Gone are the days when major merchant ships would first taste water on the Mersey, Clyde or Tyne. China, South Korea and Japan are the yards of choice for mass production.

UN data reveals that between 2014-2016, an average of 65,777,295 gross tonnes (gt) of new merchant ships were launched every year.

The UK produced 925 gt of those every year. In contrast China delivered around 22m, Germany around 400,000 while France was well above 200,000 gt in 2016.

Industry insiders reckon that if you count steel-only vessels, only two were launched off these shores last year: one small ferry for CMAL from Ferguson Marine and one ferry for Strangford Lough from Cammell Laird.

The government knows it has a problem. I look forward to hearing its solutions at London International Shipping Week.

In 2015 the Department for Transport’s Maritime Growth Study identified the need for the sector to evolve and focus on high-end engineering, services and technology, yet the resulting 2016 ship building strategy was almost wholly focused on Royal Navy procurement.

We need a strong navy but the focus needs to be balanced. The UK is a world leader in maritime business services, providing over 26% of global maritime insurance, well ahead of nearest competitors in China, Japan and the US.

Marine science courses in Southampton, Strathclyde, Liverpool and Plymouth are among the world’s best, business clusters in the Solent, Clyde and Merseyside among the most competitive.

The UK has exceptional, world leading capability in innovation, design, high end manufacture and engineering, novel strong lightweight materials and world leading commercial sector – all of which are essential for addressing the rapidly changing needs of the 21st century global fleet and represent huge wealth creating opportunities for UKplc.

The coast around the Solent is home to world leading yacht-racing talent: from Dame Ellen Macarthur, Mike Golding OBE and Sir Ben Ainslie to the world-renowned Humphreys Yacht Design.

It’s a network of maritime expertise on par with the Formula 1 cluster around Silverstone, home to McLaren, Mercedes, Red Bull, Lotus and Williams. This innovation and high end engineering capacity supports UK industrial development and UK’s yacht racing can do the same for commercial shipping

Brexit and an incoming industrial strategy offer hope these talents can be better utilised.

Freed from EU state aid restrictions, empowered by the need for British ports to become international hubs, UK shipping can thrive – given the right conditions.

It’s vital the government’s industrial strategy meets global demand for greener and cleaner shipping as a strategic priority. Like the car industry, shipping is looking to a fossil free future.

That means government support for innovative developments to benefit shipyards committed to the next generation of vessels. In the same way the UK has nurtured Formula 1 engineering hubs and all the technology transfer opportunities that implies, so too it must grow its marine reach.

Governments in Norway, Sweden and Denmark have already eyed the potential for their own shipyards: which are busy churning out new hybrid, electric and biofuel vessels.

UK renewable energy and automotive expertise in battery technology and the potential of strong, smart hulls thanks to work at the National Composite Centre in Bristol would propel us to the crest of the wave given government support.

The UK led the world on development of onshore/offshore wind turbines: we are good at harnessing the power of the wind and have thousands of years of heritage in doing the same for sailing ships.

Above all there’s a compelling economic and security argument for us to support the maritime sector.

If Brexit means a new focus on skills, trade, exports and on extending our reach to all corners of the earth – then it’s time we looked to our maritime heritage and took advantage of a unique UK skill-set.


  1. This is mainly nonsense, with little understanding of the underlying realities of what ‘ ‘made’ Uk shipping and shipbuilding, and what subsequently ‘unmade’ UK
    shipping and ‘ shipbuilding’

    The suggestion that UK led the development of onshore and and offshore wind turbines , is breathtaking in its ignorance.

    What UK turbines??

  2. What UK turbines? Beats me Rob. She must be referring to the UK’s 30 offshore wind farms generating 5.1GW of operational capacity with a further 4.5GW under construction. I think that means the UK generates more from offshore wind than any other country.

    On the other point you make, I’d be interested in your thoughts on the UK shipping industry and what’s holding it back rather than personal tirades.

    1. Dom, how many of those turbines were made in the UK?

      Robert is making a perfectly good point.

      1. Like any supply chain it’s going to be mixed… but a government-backed report released this month suggests British companies secure around half of all UK wind power deals (planning, building, operating etc)

        There’s £11.5bn investment planned through to 2021; Siemens + ABP are investing in a turning manufacturing + assembly factory in Hull. It’s a strong growth story.

        Origin of parts is tricky: the UK makes wings for Airbus… the BMW Mini is made here with parts from across the EU. I’d suggest (and I’m not sure this is what you’re getting at but I’ll suggest it anyway) the idea that everything has to be manufactured in one country is dated. Dom.

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