Mr Robert Smith, manager of the Port of Ipswich, was a most welcome speaker on 11 December. In every way an experienced rnanagoer with a great knowledge of shipping and a keen eye to business, he described the port's recent achievements and outlined further aspirations. The wealth of detail he provided was always interesting and often surprising, although it can only be sketchily generalised in this report for the Newsletter.
Now owners of 21 ports, Associated British Ports (ABP) acquired the Port of Ipswich in 1997. The Ipswich Port Authority had suffered badly in the previous few years. Mr Smith didn't say so but members of this Society may well suspect that much of the decline was due to uncertainty over the then Government's intention to privatise the port.
However there would be little dispute with Mr Smith's description of the port then as run down, with little modern warehousing and a devastating loss of container trade - In 1994, Ipswich was the UK's 5th largest container port, but all four container lines left in 1995.
ABP took over the port with the ability to invest in it. Focusing more on the area's agricultural hinterland, they have built a new grain terminal (the old one wasn't waterproof). There is a new 7-acre timber store on the West Bank to allow for ro-ro expansion - the ferries returned in 2001 after a six year gap. Furthermore, the acquisition of the Cliff Quay power station site will help to ease the problem of lack of space. (In answer to a question about decontaminating that site, Mr Smith explained that it was much less of a problem because, unlike the old gas works site, it won't be used for housing - the site can be capped and then piled for new commercial facilities.)
There have also been other investments. The lock-gates to the Wet Dock were replaced at a cost of £1.1m so as to develop the marinas; in fact the lock is only used about once a fortnight by Anglo-Nordem vessels and less by Paul's, so the gates are mostly a facility for yachts. And the multi-functional nature of ABP's investment is also indicated by their early acquisition of a new fleet of fork-lift trucks, the creation of a conference centre in the ground floor level of the Custom House and the building of The Last Anchor bistro.
Despite the investments, the variety and the upturn in some parts of its business, Mr Smith made it clear that the Port of Ipswich faces some major challenges. The value of trade hasn't yet returned to the best pre- 1994 figures. And the short sea routes across the North Sea are so competitive that Ipswich has to provide such services at half the price of those on the Humber. The work involved is just as demanding as that in a larger port but the returns are lower. On the credit side, Mr Smith praised the good flexible workforce at Ipswich.
Looking more to the future, Mr Smith emphasised the Port's wish to see the building of an East Bank Link Road for the expansion of their business. He also envisaged that all commercial shipping will be on the lower river (i.e. not in the Wet Dock) within 3-5 years.
In discussion about the possibility of a bridge crossing of the Wet Dock he outlined the problems - it couldn't be a fixed bridge (the highest yacht masts are 30m) yet the road should never be closed to traffic. Perhaps a Dutch-type solution of two parallel bridges might be possible.
Yes, it was a fascinating talk - worthy of a bigger audience in our comfortable new venue, the upstairs hall of the Museum Street Methodist Church. Anyone interested in Ipswich can't help being aware of its history, in which the port has been in many ways the centre of our town. Commercial shipping has now moved down river, as in most other parts of the world, and from now onwards the Waterfront (Wet Dock) will become a centre of a different kind. But Mr Smith reminded us very strongly that the port, the original raison d'etre of Ipswich, still exists and has a future.