ALEX BRUMMER: Pitfalls of overseas control

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ALEX BRUMMER: Selling the nation’s commercial birthright has been an unmitigated disaster, as vacationers are learning this Easter weekend

An inescapable truth about the great Easter getaway is that it starts with tales of woe. 

There is a vicarious pleasure in reports of other people queuing on accident-strewn motorways, chaos at Dover and mayhem at the airports. 

But in spite of the palaver around PCR tests, passenger locator forms and efforts by green fanatics to disrupt lives, there is still undimmed joy and wanderlust for travel. One cannot but think that journeys would be less stressful if the owners of the infrastructure, the ports, ferries and airports gave higher priority to the interests of consumers and businesses. 

Long queues: An inescapable truth about the great Easter getaway is that it starts with tales of woe

Long queues: An inescapable truth about the great Easter getaway is that it starts with tales of woe

The P&O Ferries imbroglio, clogging up highways across Kent and routes to the Eurotunnel, is a case in point. 

Despite a grand British heritage, P&O is nothing of the sort. Dubai-based DP World bought P&O ports way back in 2006 for £5billion. P&O Ferries were added for £332m in 2019. 

UK-listed companies make blunders. But it is hard to think of any so crassly handled as the P&O efforts to cut costs by sacking experienced crews and replacing them with low-paid, lesser-skilled agency workers who have imperilled ferry safety. 

P&O’s Spirit of Britain remains impounded at Dover for safety reasons. As a result, the already tough lives of HGV drivers are made harder, strained supply chains become more stretched and downtime in Europe for holidaymakers is blighted. There is no obvious effort to unpick labour laws at the airports. But benighted overseas ownership provides easy cover from public opprobrium. 

Heathrow chief executive John HollandKaye’s ultimate bosses are at Spanish construction empire Ferrovial, along with investors from Qatar, China and the US. 

Under cover of Covid, car parking charges have been raised to astronomic levels, drop off fees introduced and, at present, the airport is seeking to ladle on extra landing charges to the consternation of carriers and passengers. 

The regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, sits on its hands.

Chaos at Heathrow cannot wholly be blamed on the owners. Airlines are also culpable. 

But whereas Easyjet and BA have UK investors to answer to, Heathrow is spared such niceties. 

As a long-standing critic of foreign ownership of vital infrastructure (my book Britain For Sale was published in 2012) I find it comforting that British asset manager Schroders is coming round to the same view. Recent analysis by the head of its Strategic Research Unit, Duncan Lamont, points out that, in the last decade, one in three British companies has vanished from the London Stock Exchange.

Lamont contrasts the UK experience with other Western markets. In the US, most deals are intra-American. In the UK, 54 per cent of firms representing 70 per cent of value have fallen into overseas hands. 

In France and Germany, foreign takeovers account for 30 per cent and 25 per cent of deals respectively and most of those are from EU partners. The study suggests that overseas deals have precarious consequences for UK stock markets and the economy. 

As we see at Dover and Heathrow, the loss of command and control has hugely disruptive social consequences. 

We live in traumatic times with food, energy and national security under threat. Selling the nation’s commercial birthright has been an unmitigated disaster, as vacationers are learning this weekend. 

May your Easter and Passover breaks still be a blessing.

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