UK must invest in smart and green shipping solutions, MPs tell government

A “major commercial opportunity” in the development of smart shipping and autonomous vessels exists for the UK, according to a report by the Transport Select Committee (TSC).

The UK’s maritime sector needs more investment in new technology and cleaner fuels to compete internationally, MPs said.

The TSC has published a report on the government’s Maritime 2050 strategy, published in 2019. Although the document was originally praised for its long-term vision, MPs have criticised the lack of a specific action plan to achieve the goals set. 

The reviewers called for “great clarity” about how the government’s vision for the UK to be a world leader in zero-emission shipping will be achieved.

The committee urged the Department for Transport (DfT) to publish the outcome of a consultation on regulating innovative technology so that “momentum” is not lost. This includes a “defined plan” for decarbonising the maritime sector with “clear, measurable targets” for both home and abroad. 

“There is an array of things government should do to support the sector and help it achieve its ambitions to decarbonise and remain a positive force on the world stage and for the UK economy,” said Iain Stewart, TSC chair. 

“We commend the government for being forward-thinking in developing the Maritime 2050 strategy, but clarity and focus are needed to refine its muddle of 184 recommendations.”  

The committed urged ministers to bring forward the promised ‘Clean Maritime Plan’, which aims to give industry the certainty it needs to invest in technology, new vessels, infrastructure and low-carbon shore power.

“Without it, we will fall behind other countries and miss our net-zero targets,” Stewart added.

The report also discussed the potential of investing in smart and autonomous shipping solutions. 

The 2022 Queen’s Speech stated that the government would “introduce new laws that safely enable […] remotely operated vehicles and vessels.” However, this legislation was soon shelved.

The committee was told by the National Oceanography Centre that challenges with recruitment in this area have resulted from a “lack of defined quality standards [regulation] for autonomy”, which has led to “a lack of easily identifiable and transferable skills”. 

The committee called for the necessary reforms to be legislated for “at the earliest opportunity” so that “a major commercial opportunity for UK innovators – at the forefront to date – is not lost”. 

MPs called on DfT to establish the promised ‘Centre for Smart Shipping’ as soon as possible, empowering it to work with the sector to enable innovation to prosper. 

“The UK, and the Solent region in particular, is a world leader in maritime autonomy,” said Huw Gullick, associate director of innovations at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC). “The sector has benefited in the past from an absence of regulation in testing and scaling-up new technologies. To now take the industry forward, we need the regulation to catch up and the Committee is right to push the government on this.

“We have the right technology and scale can only now be achieved with the regulation that supports this fast-moving sector. The UK can harness first-mover advantage to drive autonomy to the next exciting stage in the ocean space.” 

The report also warned that the government’s response to P&O Ferries’ decision to lay off nearly 800 seafarers without notice in March last year will “not be sufficient to ensure proper treatment” of workers still employed in the role.

Measures announced by the DfT included plans to enforce minimum pay requirements and for the promised welfare charter to be introduced “as soon as possible” and to be made mandatory.

A DfT spokesperson said: “We are pleased the Transport Select Committee recognises the maritime sector’s significant contribution to the UK and the work that has gone into developing the strategy. We want to build on the good progress in delivering Maritime 2050 and look forward to responding to the report in due course.”

Currently, approximately 95 per cent of goods by weight come to the UK by ship and the Department for Business and Trade has predicted maritime cargo volumes will triple by 2050. Overall, the UK’s maritime sector employs 185,000 people throughout the four nations and contributes £40bn a year to the economy.

DfT has said it is working on a follow-up to its 2019 Clean Maritime Plan, with aspirations that by 2025 all new vessels ordered for use in UK waters will have zero-emission propulsion capability and that the UK will be in the process of building clean maritime clusters.

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