Michelle Handforth is nine months into what she describes as her “dream come true” job. From her office overlooking the harbour she has a view over “the city’s beating heart”.
The chief executive of Aberdeen Harbour Board has recently returned from a conference in Newcastle to discuss the future of the UK’s ports.
Inevitably, discussion at the British Ports Association (BPA) annual conference turned to Brexit and what it could mean if they have to implement border controls, while continuing to handle 95% of the UK’s trade. Eyes were also turned on the prospects for Aberdeen, which is on track to open South Harbour in 2020 – the single largest investment in port infrastructure in the UK.
“There was a lot of discussion around our seizing the moment and elevating the dialogue with government about the role of ports in the international trading environment, and what does that look like in the future,” Ms Handforth said. “If you look at import and export business, it is concentrated in south-east ports.
“You could argue they will be most impacted by whatever Brexit looks like – deal or no deal. If you look at the fact we are not a large land mass, relative to the rest of Europe, there is a massive opportunity to come north and look at different ways of trading.
“We have a very unique opportunity here because Aberdeen is going to have the largest port in Scotland in terms of berthage. So we will be a very large piece of infrastructure and a major strategic asset.”
Despite fears that a hard Brexit could transform the M20 on the way to the Port of Dover into a lorry park, thinking about Aberdeen harbour’s potential as a locus of trade predates the prospect of leaving the EU.
Ms Handforth sees the newly expanded harbour as an opportunity to facilitate trade in goods produced in the region as well as boosting tourism.
“Supporting the energy industry is our core business but we are also really keen to explore the leisure market, which is fantastic for the region but also the export market,” she added. “That is going to be an interesting, emerging area because a lot of Scotland’s products are transported out of the country via the south-east. Most of Scotland’s whisky gets driven down and shipped out through Felixstowe.
“We are at the edge of trying to figure out how we become a hub for products and services in the north-east. We will work with the energy industry, also agriculture, food and beverage so they know they have world-class facilities on their doorstep that can be used with very little risk to them. They just have to use it.”
Ms Handforth is ready with praise for the harbour board’s “ambitious, bold, brave and courageous decision” to press ahead with the expansion of South Harbour, particularly in the face of the oil and gas downturn and the inevitable naysayers against the project in its wake.
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Yet the prospect of the arrival of giant cruise ships packed to the gunwales with tens of thousands of well-heeled tourists keen on day trips to Balmoral or Trump International has caught the local imagination. A recent conference hosted by Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce, Vanguard, aired ideas to promote the city region’s fortunes. The most imaginative and ambitious of these was a plan for a cable car connecting South Harbour to the Castlegate – via the beach – in an effort to lure a few thousand passengers and crew into, rather than out of, town.
Speaking before the Vanguard conference where the cable car plans emerged, Ms Handforth was keen to argue the need for Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire to think ambitiously. She harkened back to her experience of working in Sydney for nearly three years where, as general manager of the harbour ferry service and transport hub, she was a key stakeholder in a massive project to redevelop the area’s facilities.
“There’s a lot of parallels between what Sydney has done regenerating very deprived parts of central Sydney. I don’t see any reason why Aberdeen can’t be the same.
“Everyone thinks Sydney Harbour has been like that for years, but it hasn’t. Thirty years ago Circular Quay, which sits between the opera house and the harbour bridge, was one of the most polluted and industrial areas of the city.
“They realised they were competing with the entire Australasian tiger economies.
“It was not going to be enough to have the two iconic symbols of Australia – the bridge and opera house – to drive economic development for the city.”
A massive effort has driven a £1.7 billion project which involves new offices, residential, retail and hotel developments as well as the expansion of the city’s light rail. And while the project is ongoing, Ms Handforth believes that a comparable project of scale can be replicated in Aberdeen – if the right attitudes align.
She said: “You have to work as an integrated community in the best interests of the city. There must be close working relationships with the councils, city committees, developers and communities. It has to be a one-team approach.
“It has to have the ultimate goal of putting your city and region on the global map.
“The lessons I took from Sydney are that anything is possible if you have an aligned vision and are able to translate that into action.
“What is very interesting for this chapter in Aberdeen is there is a lot of energy and passion, new leadership, people that are prepared to invest time, energy and money in the future of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. But at what point does that then crystallise into redevelopment? In order to get the investment, you have got to have something people want to buy.
“It has never been more exciting. But speed of change is overwhelming sometimes. It takes a long time – 20, 30, 40 years – to transform a city. If there is not a united approach to seizing the moment, that moment will pass.”
The changes wrought by the opening of South Harbour mark a turning point for the 900-year-old trust port as it sets its sights on its future. The harbour’s new capacity, allowing for vessels up to nearly 1,000ft long, future-proofs it in an era where ships are only getting larger. Ms Handforth also sees possibilities in ensuring the harbour embraces the highest environmental standards as a key differentiator in the competitive UK ports market.
She is practically defiant in her belief that, without this investment, the port would be managing a decline both in its fortunes and the potentially game-changing impact it could have on the city region’s future.
“We have taken a lot of risks to build this port,” she said.
“The reinvention of the port can actually reset a region’s economic footprint. You have to be proud about what you are building. You have to want to make it work.
“When people say to us, ‘why are you spending all this money?, how are you going to fill that port?, it is too big, it is built for the peak of the oil market’ – all that – the more it is going to spur us on to say, ‘we will show you’.”