Why the IMO should move its HQ from London to Singapore

There is a variant of Parkinson’s Law which says that once an organisation builds itself a grand headquarters it is in decline. A visitor to Tower Hill, in London, will see an imposing building called Ten, Trinity Square; now a hotel, formerly the home of an insurance broker, but built as the headquarters of the Port of London Authority. The PLA decided to build it in 1911; it was finished in 1922. Its boardroom was so grand that the first meeting of the United Nations was held there in 1946.

1911 was the year in which trade through the Port of London, and thus the revenue of the PLA, reached its peak. It has declined ever since.

The International Maritime Organization is, as everyone reading this knows, a United Nations agency based far away from the UN’s HQ in New York. It was set up at a conference held in Geneva in 1949, which agreed that a new UN agency, to be called the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation (IMCO), would be set up in London. From 1959 to 1982, IMCO wandered around London, in various rented buildings, from Chancery Lane to Berners Street to Piccadilly, doing useful stuff. It got its own place, on the Albert Embankment, and a grander name, in 1982. It was no longer ‘intergovernmental consultative’ but ‘maritime’. It soon became less useful and has done less and less, with more and more bureaucracy, with every year that passes.

The trick is to get the Singaporeans to pay generously for something that they so desperately want

The IMO has fossilised; it needs something to wake it up. A change of scenery might do that.

In 1949, London was obviously the headquarters of the world’s merchant shipping. Not only was the British merchant fleet the largest in the world, but London was still, as it had been during World War II, the ‘home from home’ of the Greek, Norwegian and Dutch merchant fleets. By 1959, the open registers had eaten into the dominance of those flags, but London was still pretty much the place to be, with New York as the only practical alternative, so far as shipbroking, finance, law, arbitration and special expertise of all sorts as well as shipmanagement were concerned.

British merchant shipping reached its greatest tonnage in 1977. By 1982, it was well into absolute as well as relative decline, but nobody who wasn’t at sea, and being made redundant, really noticed.

London could pretend for a few decades that although it no longer had many actual ships, it still had Lloyds, most of the P&I Clubs, the Baltic Exchange, most of the brokers, many of the bankers, most of the lawyers, arbitrators, average adjusters and the like (remember the Salvage Association?) and many experts. And anyway, it was doing better than New York.

The IMO has fossilised; it needs something to wake it up

No longer.

The IMO is now in the wrong place. That Eighties building, stranded on the Albert Embankment, looks more and more like a white elephant. It has been shut for months – did you notice?

Shipping isn’t centred on the North Atlantic anymore; this is the Pacific Century. Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, and of course Singapore, can all make a better claim to host the IMO than can London, which isn’t even in the European Union.

Changing the location of the headquarters requires an overwhelming majority of the member states. Clearly, any city making a play to house the new IMO HQ will have to be somewhere that delegates (and let us not forget, partners of delegates!) want to be. Five of the cities I have listed can do that with no trouble at all, and even Manila can look quite good when it wants to; it is already the home of the IIRI and the ADB.

I suggest that the secretary general convenes a committee to hold a beauty parade in the manner of the International Olympic Committee, and get in the most generous financial inducements and the best offers of new buildings, perhaps located where a ship or two may be seen from the windows. It’s going to be Singapore; the trick is to get the Singaporeans to pay generously for something that they so desperately want.

Perhaps the IMO secretariat can make a start now, whilst they are not so busy?

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Andrew Craig-Bennett works for a well known Asian shipowner. Previous employers include Wallem, China Navigation, Charles Taylor Consulting and Swire Pacific Offshore. Andrew was also a columnist for Lloyd's List for a decade.


  1. I do not really understand how this opinion is relevant. IMO is in London because that is where all legal shipping knowledge is at the moment and that’s what the IMO is about in my opinion. Such organisations like shipping companies run on people and knowledge. Look at Singapore… most knowledge and people are still imported.

    1. The history of the IMO is interesting; it wasn’t established in London because of the expertise in shipping law there; it was established in London because the shipowning companies were there. They are in Singapore, now.

    2. Hello John, I believe IMO shouldn’t fosilized in London HQ. It can be revived and energetic. London is best place and history behind the set-up and building. The first board meeting of UN assembly held there.
      It should stay in London, not necessary to shift IMO to Singapore. God bless IMO.
      Best regards
      David Ghosh

    1. Fine idea. I’m very fond of the place, myself. Let us know as soon as you have persuaded the Scandinavians.

  2. Sorry Andrew, have to disagree for once. Several points, IMO should not even exist! It has no useful function anymore.

    But if we have to have the fossil then leave where it is, in its grand old mausoleum. Irrelevant and bumbling.

    As to where a regulator should be, we should not ignore large portions of ownership still reside in Europe both North and South. Also one might argue the European Union has more regulatory relevance today anyway.

    1. Frank, a lot of people will agree with you. They will say, “Wind it up and go back to Diplomatic Conferences to draft treaties, as and when they are needed.“ But I’d sooner give it one more chance to get back in touch with the industry it’s meant to be helping.

  3. Or shut it down and establish a new regulator that is better suited for modern times (one which arguably doesn’t need a grandiose brick-and-mortar manifestation anywhere). Political decay sets in when institutions become incapable of meaningful change. No clearer example than IMO’s constant bamboozlement at why governments and public want to move faster on the environment.

      1. It is not that important where it resides is it? It is what it does that matters. How it influences the world – not just the maritime world. How effective it’s decision making processes are. How proactive it can be on as many occassions as possible and how it well it can react when it has to. How “above board” it’s discussions can be, rather than hiding behind the forest of paper surrounding the coffee area. But it is, at the end of the day, a simple collection of Governments without much leadership being possible from within it’s own ranks. So do we really expect any better? Look how Governments have handled the current C-19 crisis and that is real time life and death.
        ps some readers wont recognise that “grandiose” was surely meant in jest. It is like something out of the 1940s inside!

  4. No ways, i think in my humble opinion London is where tge IMO Headquarter should, unless members States think otherwise. We dont want to make things hard for representatives, who will have to relocate with family and goods from London to where ever the new headquarter might be.
    I think it is just not the right time to raise the topic, IMO has a lot more issues to takle to make the maritime transport safe and sound for everybody.

  5. english language widely used at sea worlwide and english law make London the ideal location for imo headquarters,dry cargo shipbroking/Baltic exchange, Ship sale and purchase, Oil trading and tanker chartering,did i mention Greenwich meridian.; London
    most conveniently situated in the worlds time zones,

  6. Wonderful.. Not sure moving it somewhere else would change things, Bond street might notice the loss of trade but no one else. The sad reality is that London has not been a vibrant shipping capital for a long time. The tragedy is that those in London continue to delude themselves that they are. Like other old shipping capitals, Venice for instance, it has lost touch with the very thing that made it succesful. Namely trade, and Covid will only hasten the demise.

  7. This is a remarkable achievement in managing to marry a Trumpian populism with the notion of globalisation – two diametrically opposite theories – in a single article. Well done. The problem with populism though, is that albeit it puts the most painful issues on the table, which everybody else flees from like the devil from incense (thank you for bring up these legitimate issues with IMO’s inefficiency and bureaucracy, that is really appreciated), populism does not offer any solution to those issues, and in all known cases so far from Hitler to Trump has been just self-serving. I agree with the other fellow commentator, who commented earlier, that Singapore is a long way away from being able to rely on a home-grown talent. I would further remind you, that Singapore’s corporate environment is riddled with fraud – there is a long line of high profile scam cases in the last decade, culminating now with the Hin Leong Group’s Ocean Bunkering Services. Singapore must clean their act first before trying to claim a place on the world’s maritime stage.

  8. Have to agree that IMO no longer serves a purpose with far too much influence and pressure placed on members votes by associates of ship owners and industry service providers. Imagine if the energy and gusto that the ITF has shown towards seafarers welfare was replicated by IMO we would not be discussing this at all. If had to move HQ somewhere put them in Reykjavik.

  9. Know what, it’s time for a total overhaul of IMO.. Get all stake holders, brainstorming session and debate on proposals. Asia is fast becoming a maritime gateway and setting up base in ?? sounds good to go. Cheers from #SherSWTC⚓

  10. It is very pleasing to see Splash reproducing Andrew Craig-Bennett, a well known Asian ship owners views on the IMO whilst untold and unrecognised thousands upon thousands of Seamen are stranded upon vessels working long past their relief and repatriation home to their families and loved ones.

    Probably time to concentrate on the big issue maintaining world global trade in a safe and humane fashion whilst recognising the importance of the ILO MLC convention and its lack of implementation or enforcement by flag states. Shameful indeed.

      1. Good Morning Andrew

        No I did not miss that article however with limited capabilities at the moment to suggest a move of the IMO is inappropriate an very ill timed when that organisation is attempting to address the current issues with seafarers repatriation.

        Its a matte of priorities.

        Kind regards Gary

  11. Just shut it down.
    IMO is a corrupt useless organization. Serves no purpose at all, absolutely none !!
    Just a big party and mutual admiration set up.
    Let the Classification societies make the rules and implement them.

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