The elephant in the room

A wall of silence still surrounds  the computer system at the heart of the BTOM, called the Single Trade Window (STW). This will be the one and only way of getting data into the system. The final version*⁠1 of the BTOM guide, published on February 11 states: “ …the Single Trade Window could be fully operational in 2027.” 

There are a number of reasons why this could be awkward, but one will do. The STW calculates the aggregate cost of wear and tear caused by lorry traffic to roadways at ports. This operational detail is  used to set a levy called the Common User Charge (CUC). This is payable when a lorry leaves a port: the CUC is added to a rolling monthly invoice. While the STW sets a figure for Government operated ports, private operators were invited to fix their own charges, as they would do for anything else.  Dover and Portsmouth,  the two busiest ports in the UK, both happen to be owned and operated privately.

Sorry, but this is not a clickable link yet. 1 Feb-11-24-Final_Border_Target_Operating_Model.pdf para 350 page 88

So strange, yet true

The British government’s plans really are as mad as they sound. Try this example for size:

Fresh produce importer PML Seafrigo runs a private BCP at Lympne, near Dover. Company director Mike Parr picks up the story:

“PML Seafrigo has its own 24/7 border control post at Lympne, which is the closest point of entry to the Port of Dover (closer than Sevington), we have a dedicated transport and logistics hub for imported goods and yet our customers will still be charged the CUC even though they will not be using the Sevington facility. 

“The government is effectively asking businesses such as ours to collect taxes on their behalf. And the fact that this fee will be reviewed and updated annually by Defra is itself worrying, it could easily be increased in 12 months’ time. 

Parr is outraged by the casual way the government is abusing the trust of the country’s traders.

“The common user charge (CUC) is effectively another business tax that will be applied to each commodity line in a Common Health Entry Document (CHED). Although fees are capped – £145 for every consignment arriving via the Port of Dover or Eurotunnel –this is another expense for importers and retailers to bear, which will of course be reflected in further delays at the ports and another price hike for essential food items.

“What is particularly frustrating is that the fee is being levied for all fresh produce / plants goods passing through Dover or Folkestone – even if they don’t pass through the government controlled inspection post at Sevington.”

The question that most people would want an answer to is “WHY is the British government waging war on the very people that it claims to support? Any ideas, please add as a comment.

Day and night

For centuries urban populations have cheerfully ignored one of the most basic phases in the rhythm of the planet’s life, thanks to rapidly evolving technology. It is paradoxical, but completely normal, for millions of people around the world to treat the hours of day and night as interchangeable. In the twenty first century, the electric light switch rewrites all the rules governing what can be done at different times of day. For all practical purposes, such rules have no current application.

City life is 24/7, thanks to artificial lighting. A trivial gesture over a light switch is all many of us need to turn night into day. But this has not always been the case and if we make any serious progress with choking off climate change, we will have to rethink our energy expectations, too.

Before the widespread use of electric light, the availability of town gas pipes determined the extent of street and domestic lighting in industrial towns and cities. Go back a century and the demand for animal fats and oils to make candles and run lanterns was significant, if waning. But go back further and a gaping chasm re-appears between those who lived in sparsely-lit houses and those who could afford to routinely light their homes and entertain guests to dinner or dance the night away at elaborate balls.

Alaskan dockside scene, circa 1911.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dig a little deeper into history and the lighting fuel of choice was whale oil, initially processed in dockside refineries around the world, later produced on board ship as whaling vessels became large enough to accommodate the necessary equipment and tankage. From being a rough and ready battle with nature and the elements, fraught with danger for the dinghy crews, whaling became an increasingly ruthless war of attrition that drove whole species to the brink of extinction. As well as extracting all the oil from a huge carcase, the whaling industry earned substantial money from whale meat, with some cuts sold on for cheap food products and the rest sold to feed urban cats and dogs. In this context, the dog’s dinner was a secondary by-product from the days of lucrative barrels of whale oil.The whaling industry went into a long term decline as a direct result of its impact on whale numbers.

Squeezing money from geography

Travel often brings with it a taste for foods that consumers encounter while they are away from home. This broader view of food and drink gained momentum in the latter half of the 20th century, as shoppers started asking for avocado pears, a wider range of pizza and pasta products, not to mention a tidal wave of Asian foods that have been greeted with open arms and either adopted or adapted to British tastes. Many Indian foods have found their way to Britain over the centuries and some, like tea, became national institutions.

It is time to look at the historical context of moving food around the world and look at the topics of food security and self sufficiency. During the latter years of the twentieth century, Britain was about 50% self sufficient: the official headline figure was closer to 65%, but since UK food manufacturers import a variable proportion of their ingredients, these shipments should be taken into account. The impact of two world wars on the domestic economy of Britain leaves a residual malaise and feeling that the UK “…ought to do better…” at producing its own food, notably among older generations.

There is an array of variables that define the economic environment in which food is produced, some of which can be covered now. The first is the colonial plantation paradigm in which overseas territories are ruled and exploited solely to produce commodity crops for colonial powers. Britain, Holland, Spain and Portugal come to mind as historic colonisers, shipping plant material and slave labour in to strategic locations, usually between the tropics. Feeding the work force was a low priority, but was usually a part of the operational model.

Down the intervening centuries this practice continued, developing into what is now referred to as landgrabbing. The topic is extensively documented by Fred Pearce, author of The Land Grabber. The 2012 book can be bought as a paperback or a download here. As the name suggests, land is bought or leased and fenced off. This has been practiced by countries such as China and a number of Arab states. The enclosed land is brought into cultivation usually by nationals from the states concerned and the crops are shipped to these countries as they are harvested. Local populations are excluded from these holdings, which are often of the highest quality available locally.

While this is a modern, pernicious practice, it is not without historical precedent. Irish Quaker and philanthropist Joseph Fisher was a poor law commissioner during the Irish potato famines of the 1840s. From his family home, overlooking the approach to Cork harbour, Fisher recalled seeing ships setting sail bound for English ports. These vessels were laden with grain grown and harvested by starving labourers in the surrounding counties. Fisher went on to write the 1865 book Where Shall We Get Meat? As it happened, shiploads of cheap grain started crossing the Atlantic, as the American railroad system reached the eastern seaboard and started a sea change in European livestock sectors. The entire history of North America to that point is itself dominated by a high profile land grab in which indigenous American peoples were marginalised by settlers and farmers.

The buying power of remote markets can have an immediate impact on the food security of rural populations. This is a measure not of aggregate harvests, but their availability for local communities.

Westminster faces customs stalemate

The Scottish parliament is accusing Westminster of intransigence over the halted building work at the Scottish car ferryport of Cairnryan. Work to build a Border Controls Post (BCP) started after getting a government green light last year. Since then, construction has ground to a halt, as Westminster has refused to give a binding commitment to fund the BCP in full.

Sailings from Stranraer were transferred to the nearby Dumfries and Galloway port of Craigryan back in 2012, for operational reasons. Wholly-owned by Larne Harbour Ltd, Craigryan is a part of the P&O landside portfolio. It can operate up to 16 sailings a day, serving destinations in Northern Ireland.

While Brexit negotiations were in progress, Westminster was committed to funding border infrastructure in full. The Scottish parliament is concerned that it may end up footing part of the bill for port infrastructure on a privately-owned facility. There are also political sensitivities about a requirement for customs facilities on what is currently an internal border.

The implementation of Sanitary and PhytoSanitary (SPS) checks that are the reason for building a BCP in the first place has not happened. Successive start dates in 2021 and 2022 were announced and cancelled: Westminster is currently planning to start SPS checks on livestock and animal products in July, although the BCP site at Cairnryan might not be operational by then.

From a commercial point of view, ferry traffic patterns have changed since Brexit, making the business case and the requirement for a BCP a moot point. The introduction of inbound SPS checks for the UK cannot be evaded forever.

Food pricing 100 years ago

The 1925 Royal Commission on Food Prices was tasked with investigating food industry prices. Urban Food Chains is running a series of analytical case studies for subscribing members, drawing on the detailed statistical evidence that was heard by the commission during its deliberations.

Board of Trade statistician Mr A W Flux* told the hearing that the UK food economy grew by about two billion pounds (thousand million) in 1907. This comprised goods consumed in the UK , which were valued at between 1,248 and 1,408 million pounds; services between 350 and 400 million pounds and additions to capital of between 320 and 350 million pounds.

2. Of the goods consumed, some passed directly from producer to consumer (e.g. bread), and in some cases the produce was consumed by the producer (e.g. farm and garden produce consumed by the families of the cultivators). A second class of goods, while passing through merchants’ hands, was not the subject of retail trade, while, of the goods that passed though merchants’ and retailers’ hands, it was estimated that the charges of distribution, including cost of transport, amounted to something between one half and two thirds of the value of the goods at the place of production or importation.

The First Report of the Royal Commission on Food Prices, Volume 3, Appendix 1, paragraph 2

*Mr Flux is not a made up name, it is for real.

Follow the links for subscription-only content about the core commodities of the day:


Import VAT

In today’s economy there is a big difference between the place of production and the place of importation. The place of importation today is the customs post which is clearing goods for onward travel. At the turn of the twentieth century in the days of empire, it is arguable that the UK national frontier included or contained the colony concerned. One can be sure, however, that customs duty would not have been expected on goods leaving a colony and arriving in the UK.

In today’s post-Brexit economy, however, things are a bit different. The place of production determines the rate at which duty is payable (or zero percent, depending on the provenance of the goods). Regardless of duty, however, import VAT is due and can be considered a fiscal rite of passage. A consignment of goods arriving at a UK border post will have a customs value: this is the aggregate of the value of the goods, insurance, shipping and administrative costs (such as phytosanitary checks for plant material).

Zero duty goods will not be charged import VAT on the zero duty, but will be charged VAT on the rest of its customs value, at the applicable UK rate. Since import VAT is an aggregate, it will be levied on each component of the consignment at the applicable rate of VAT, for example haulage from point of origin to the customs post will be charged at 20%; food safety checks at, say, GBP 450 per container will be taxed at 20%, likewise freight insurance and office admin costs. In short, zero-duty goods will escape customs duty but not import VAT. The implementation of Sanitary and PhytoSanitary (SPS) checks in July 2023 will add another administrative layer to food imports as well as increased levels of import VAT when customs values rise.

The increased cost of importing food — or anything else for that matter — will not go unnoticed. The government’s additional tax revenue will take a bit of explaining. There is not a queue of UK politicians waiting to sell this delicate state of affairs to the electorate.

Just for show

Back in July, The Guardian ran a story about the building of a  Border Control Post (BCP) at Portsmouth (The Guardian, July 6 2022, page 33). Port owners, Portsmouth City Council stumped up half of the GBP 25 million price tag for a building that remains firmly shut.
There is still  no sign of the UK being in a position to staff or operate these facilities. Despite Britain’s commitment to carrying out phytosanitary tests on plant matter and veterinary inspections of animal products, not to mention animals, there is no political will to deliver.
For a start, any tests carried out in the BCP will be charged to the owner of the goods in transit, pushing up the customs value and with it the VAT levied on the goods. To be sure, food may be zero-rated but haulage and product testing are not, nor is import VAT, the running total of the VAT chargeable on crossing the border.
Home truths like this can really mess with support for the Tories, who might be regretting the talk of an “oven-ready” Brexit deal. Instead, they have spent a total of GBP 450 million on port facilities they appear to have no intention of using, at a number of ports around the UK.

Migros marks major milestone

Swiss retail giant Migros has achieved the first stage of its 2030 carbon neutrality plan. All the multiple’s retail premises have completed their transition to become carbon neutral.

As the country’s largest food business and retailer, Migros operates the lion’s share of the national retail park. It has been a dominant force on the national retail scene for decades.

Between now and 2030, Migros will cut a further 80% of its greenhouse gas emissions from its business activities, including its extensive food manufacturing arm.

Instead of buying carbon credits to offset its remaining environmental overheads, Migros will “inset” its remaining emissions. One example of this arrangement is a project working with 1,000 Thai peasant families to raise the environmental standards of their rice growing. For instance, there are gains to be made by not flooding paddy fields, which area significant source of methane emissions. The result is a contribution towards a potential reduction of  60% in  the crop’s carbon footprint worldwide.