UK Port Ownership

There are three main types of Statutory Harbour Authorities (SHA) in the UK – private ports, municipal ports and trust ports, as well as a handful of smaller ports owned by parts of government. No port is the same, but all have various duties and responsibilities. Private or ‘privatised’ ports can have equity owners or shareholders and municipal ports are owned by local authorities. Trust ports are slightly different and often need explaining to both those outside but also inside our sector. Trusts are both strategically and financially independent of Government and operate largely in the private sector, although they are ‘publicly accountable’ to their stakeholders. In terms of their ownership, trust ports own themselves. There is a common misconception that trust ports are owned by government, but this is wrong. Trust ports actually own themselves and can’t be owned by another body without a major legal change.

Revenue and Finance

Trust port revenues are collected from customers and port users on a commercial basis, trust ports also pay taxes and receive no systematic public subsidies other than those which are, on occasion, made available, to all ports. Whilst operating in a commercially viable manner, any profits trust ports make are reinvested back into the port for the development of its own business activities and also for the benefit of the stakeholders. Such stakeholders can include port users, employees and the local community, although as independent bodies, trust ports do need to be prudent and ensure they have sufficient funds to continue to operate and maintain and invest in their assets. For example, unlike ports that are owned by parent companies or local authorities, trust ports do not have a ‘funder of last resort’ and there is certainly no obligation to provide a financial dividend to local communities.

Purpose and Investment

The expression ‘Trust Port’ is not statutorily defined but may best be described as referring to a body created by or under statute for the purpose of managing a harbour that does not have a share capital. Trust ports, in the same manner as ports with a share capital, enter into a variety of vital commercial transactions with lenders and other commercial parties. Trust ports generally find that any investment proposals are assessed by lenders on the same basis as proposals from any other businesses. Lenders take into account the same factors it would normally including cash flow, balance sheet and the overall strategic direction of the port.

There are a wide variety of trust ports across the UK, in terms of both the size and type of operation. Some trust ports are primarily conservancy authorities, meaning they perform the basic but essential function of maintaining a safe harbour, whereas others undertake wider port operations. In all cases surplus revenues are recycled back for the benefit of the harbour and its stakeholders. 

Legislation and Good Governance

Trust ports and all UK SHAs are governed by their own individual legislation (or Harbour Order), specific to their location and with differing constitutions. To amend such legislation all types of port must apply to their relevant part of government with a proposal.

The government only has limited ‘powers’ over trust ports, and indeed all types of SHAs, and is not a ‘regulator’ of the sector as such. However, the DfT and Transport Scotland have produced their own guidelines for trust port governance but these are not legally binding. Transport Scotland have published ‘Modern Trust Ports for Scotland’
It is expected that all trust ports in Scotland follow these guidelines where practicable, but where they do not, they should be able to explain why they have been unable to do so. It is acceptable for stakeholders to ask why these ports might not have, for example, attempted to update their own legislation and structures. However, any questions stakeholders might have should be raised with the port itself.
Much depends on the integrity of individual board members and, like a private company where the board is accountable to its shareholders, trust boards are essentially accountable to the local community.