SOUTHAMPTON, UK. The modern-day story of Southampton’s docks encapsulates the

ever-increasing conflict between the corporate demand for economic growth on the

one hand, and environmental protection coupled with people’s quality of life on

the other.

Associated British Ports, the large company which operates many of the ports

around Britain’s coastline, regards Southampton as the ‘jewel in the crown’,

ripe for expansion to cater for the new breed of large container ships which

criss-cross the world’s oceans. Half of the UK’s trade with the Far East goes

through Southampton. In 1998, the docks handled 850,000 container units and more

than 35 million tonnes of cargo. Over 500,000 new cars pass over the quayside

every year – around 70 per cent of them for export. The port’s position as

number one in cruise shipping was assured in 1997 with the renewal of contracts

with cruise companies Cunard and P&O. Andrew Kent, ABP’s regional manager, said:

‘The port continues to thrive and we are very excited about future expansion.’

An important plank in this major expansion is the ambitious corporate proposal

to build a huge new container terminal. The terminal would be built just outside

the city of Southampton in the so-called ‘Waterside area’ at Dibden Bay,

opposite the current port. The Waterside area lies between the New Forest and

Southampton Water. Dibden Bay is a ‘strategic gap’ between the settlements of

Hythe and Marchwood. It provides an open vista from Southampton, a wildlife

corridor to the New Forest from the Waterside, and one of the few remaining

undeveloped areas on Southampton Water.

Dibden Bay has had virtually every protective designation slapped on it you

could think of. Its 240 hectares of open grazing marsh and mudflats form part of

an internationally important wildlife haven notable for its diversity and number

of birds. The bay forms part of the Solent and Southampton Water Special

Protection Area (SPA) under the European Union Birds Directive, and is a Wetland

of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.


to Calshot Marshes, which includes the bay, has been declared a Site of Special

Scientific Interest (SSSI) because it includes extensive areas of saltmarsh and

mudflats, supports a high number of rare grasses, and provides feeding and

roosting sites for migratory and over-wintering waders and other birds. More

than 1 per cent of the global population of dark-bellied Brent geese frequent

the area, as well as large numbers of teal, widgeon, ringed plover, black-tailed

godwit and many other birds.


grassland behind the shore is not part of the SPA or the SSSI, but does support

rare plants, insects and wintering birds, and is a local authority-designated

Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC). The multitude of designations

for environmental protection does not end there. Part of the site is also

included in the candidate Solent and Isle of Wight Maritime Special Area of

Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive.


with me. There is more. The container terminal would adjoin the New Forest, one

of the most important heathlands in the UK and home to many rare plants, birds

and animals. The area is of international significance for its woodlarks,

Dartford warblers and nightjars. The New Forest, once William the Conqueror’s

hunting preserve and now one of England’s biggest tourist attractions, was even

shortlisted by the British government for consideration as a World Heritage



the summer of 1997, ABP unveiled their ambitious plans for Southampton port

expansion at the first meeting of the Dibden Forum, a carefully selected

audience supposedly ‘representing local community, environmental and business

interests’. The total area proposed for development is 325 hectares (ha),

including over 2 kilometres of quayside, 150 ha of hardstanding for containers,

50 ha for a rail marshalling yard with 12 tracks, 40 ha of support services and

administration, and 90 ha of intertidal and seabed dredging.


port construction phase would last 10 years and, when complete, would involve

24-hours-a-day, 365-days-per-year operation (including continuous noise and

light pollution), 6,100 vehicle movements per day, an estimated 52 per cent

increase on 1995 traffic flows on local roads by 2011, increased contamination

and pollution from spills and leaks, and total loss of foreshore mudflats,

grazing marsh and the strategic gap between Southampton and neighbouring

communities on the western side.

Despite all of this, ABP promised that port expansion offered ‘real

environmental improvements’. In an interview and 2-page spread putting forward

ABP’s case in the local newspaper, Captain Jimmy Chestnutt, ABP’s deputy port

manager in Southampton, explained: ‘We intend to build … a specially created

tidal creek which will be a great addition to the environment and replace bird

feeding grounds, at present being eroded, with new ones.’ He continued, ‘The

port [authority] has put environmental responsibilities at the heart of its



the other hand, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) which,

along with English Nature, had been consulted by ABP, were not convinced that

ABP would ‘improve’ the environment, having already warned that the piecemeal

planning approach to port expansion represented ‘the very real risk of death by

a thousand cuts for the wildlife sites’. According to RSPB senior conservation

officer Chris Corrigan, ‘Changing the mud flats is still a very new science and

we do not know if it will work’. Indeed, a similar case at Felixstowe, where a

new wildlife site was created, did not provide a home for the same types of



major focus of concern for local residents would be the inevitable increase in

port-related traffic congestion and pollution. ABP admit that two-thirds of

containers would come by road or rail rather than via sea routes, the preferred

government option. Port access to Dibden Bay would increase pressure on the

local trunk road which is already snarled-up at peak times. As a sweetener, ABP

offered at one stage to contribute to Hampshire County Council’s existing plans

to upgrade the road, although this offer now appears to have been quietly

dropped. It remains an open question how the council will square Dibden Bay

development with its obligations under the Road Traffic Reduction Act (Local

Targets), which requires local authorities to limit – then reverse – the growth

in local road traffic levels. ABP responded: ‘We’ve studied the traffic

implications for five years and we’re proposing light rail developments and

other environmentally sensitive solutions.’

Environmental concerns for Dibden Bay and the surrounding area may ultimately be

outweighed by the alleged dependence of the regional – and national – economy on

Southampton’s port. ABP claimed: ‘The continuing success of the Port of

Southampton means we’re nearing the time when Dibden Bay will be needed to

support the growth in the UK’s international trade’. Company management

contended on the basis of ‘independent economic studies’ that ‘more than 10,000

jobs are directly related to port business’ and that the new port ‘would create

3,000 new jobs for Hampshire’.

According to Paul Vickers, chairman of the local residents group, which opposes

port expansion, the figure of 10,000 jobs related to the port is ‘misleading’.

Half that number relates to local employers operating within the port authority

area – such as Esso, shipbuilding company Vospers and the military port. The

remaining 5,000 jobs in the port itself ‘include car workers, Martini factory

workers, car component, cruise, grain and fruit workers. None of these have any

relation to the container port.’

Vickers added, ‘We have it in a letter from P&O that the Southampton Container

Terminal supports only 500 full-time jobs.’ As for the 3000 new jobs allegedly

on offer, Vickers pointed out that over one-third of these would be one-off

construction jobs. As for the rest, ‘The number of new full time jobs could be

debated endlessly’. In fact, the spectre of increasing port automation and

increasing efficiency in port operations loomed large, casting doubt on the

large numbers of jobs ABP offered. Ironically, at around the same time, ABP

quietly announced 150 company job losses at their other ports around the

country. The insecurity of dock-related employment, and the extent to which

workers’ rights will be trampled upon when corporate profit is threatened, has

been amply demonstrated by the story of the Liverpool dockers as documented, for

example, by John Pilger in Hidden Agendas.


argues that without the Dibden Bay scheme, the port of Southampton will decline

and jobs lost. International trade would bypass the city and the UK as a whole.

‘If container vessels were forced into European [sic] ports, the extra cost of

shipping would result in increased prices in the high street and more expensive

exports. Current trade may be taken away, and jobs, too.’


wishes to see Southampton develop as a ‘hub port’, receiving cargo from deep sea

ships for onward shipment on feeder vessels to a number of smaller ports. The

local residents group has researched ABP’s stated aim towards increased

trans-shipment and remains sceptical: ’75-80 per cent of the containers on ships

entering or leaving the English Channel are related to mainland Europe because

of its larger economy, and consequently more than one call is made at

Continental ports. It is illogical to believe that containers are going to be

landed in Southampton for shipment across to the Continent.’


is supported in its plans for Dibden Bay port development by Southampton’s

Labour-led city council and the city’s Labour MPs, but not by the politicians

who represent the people in and around the New Forest and the Waterside area; in

other words, the communities most likely to be directly affected by port

expansion. Local residents, who have amassed a wealth of information opposing

ABP’s position, question the need for expansion when the company had until

recently been selling and leasing much of their land.


are suspicions that ABP would like to shift some of its existing port activity

to Dibden Bay, freeing up land elsewhere to sell to property developers, as it

has done in the past, and as it is now proposing to do again . A spokesman for

ABP responded: ‘Some years ago our parent company sold some land for development

that was not suitable for port use. The port is busier than ever now. Everything

we have is being used as intensively as possible. We urgently need more land.’


there is evidence that Southampton’s port is being used inefficiently. Dr

Caroline Lucas, Green MEP for the south-east of England, wrote to Margot

Wallström, the European Commissioner for the Environment, asking her to

intervene to protect Dibden Bay because of its EU- protected status, and

enclosed figures showing that ‘the existing port is being used at a level of

efficiency far below that which is normal for the industry’.


campaigners also point out that there is sufficient spare capacity at

alternative locations in the UK: ‘Felixstowe and Thamesport both have spare

capacity available or coming on stream, equivalent to Southampton’s current

throughput.’ The possibility of developing an alternative location at the former

Shell Haven refinery site within the Port of London was summarily rejected by

ABP’s Group Chief Executive when it was suggested by Dr Julian Lewis, a

Conservative New Forest MP. The battle lines appear to have been set for a long

drawn-out public enquiry starting in autumn 2001.


argument that port expansion has to go ahead on the edge of the New Forest is

one which local residents are in a strong position to counter. Slowly but

surely, people are becoming aware that economic globalisation is not an abstract

phenomenon, but is a process which hits home if left unchecked. The heartening

news is that people are prepared to learn about the issues, to see that

preservation of biodiversity, local communities and quality of life are

interdependent, and to defend these interests with vigour and, one hopes, some


David Cromwell is an oceanographer and writer based in Southampton. His first

book, ‘Private Planet’, is published in the UK in June (Jon Carpenter,

£12.99). More at:





Leave a comment