Next to the container terminal at Portsmouth International Port, just a few hundred yards from the water, is a new high-tech border control post.
Built over the last 18 months at a cost of £25million, the high-specification facility, shared between the taxpayer and the port’s owner, Portsmouth City Council, was due to be commissioned in its first week of use to improve the controls of the Imports of animal, plant and forest products from the EU to be carried out after Brexit.
However, the building stands empty and dormant after the government decided in April to likely postpone the introduction of physical controls on fresh meat, fruit, vegetables and plants from the EU forever.
The facility was completed ahead of the heavily delayed start date of July 1 for the new border measures announced by the government.
The government is now working on a new operating model for imports, to be published in the autumn and due to come into force at the end of 2023, after Brexit Secretary for Opportunities Jacob Rees-Mogg announced at the end of April that all checks and paperwork at the border would be digitised .
The decision has had ports like Portsmouth calculating the cost and wondering what to do with their impressive but redundant multi-million pound white elephants.
The British Ports Association (BPA), an industry lobby group, estimates that at least £450m of taxpayers’ money has been spent on these now largely unwanted new border control facilities.
This includes the £300m spent on buildings in ports, as well as an estimated £250m that the government has spent building 10 internal border facilities in places like Dover and Holyhead where there is no space for a checkpoint next to the terminal . These buildings will be difficult to repurpose.
“It’s designed specifically for government inspections, nothing else,” said Mike Sellers, director of Portsmouth International Port.
“The cheapest option would be demolition. It occupies two acres of farm land; We are not blessed with much land so this is a big issue for us in terms of operations.”
The port would have made money at the border checkpoint by charging the importers for goods inspections. As part of the grant fund arrangement agreed with the government, Sellers said the port is currently unable to use the facility for other commercial reasons.
Even if this were allowed, it would be time consuming and costly to reconfigure it for a different use.
Portsmouth, along with 40 other ports, received £200m of funding for the new checkpoints from the Government’s Ports Infrastructure Fund. However, this was oversubscribed, resulting in the ports themselves paying an estimated £100m to make up the shortfall.
Portsmouth, the UK’s second busiest canal port, applied for £32million in funding and was awarded £17.1million.
It subsequently changed its plans to cut costs, but Portsmouth City Council took out a loan to cover the £7.8million shortfall.
Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson said he was “left to the government’s bill” and is facing loan and interest repayments at a time of tight budgets.
“The most serious problem is the phenomenal cost that the Council has had to bear,” Vernon-Jackson said. “We have no way of getting reimbursed and no offer of financial support from the government.”
The port estimates that it will cost £1million a year to keep the facility running, even in a mothballed state.
The Portsmouth facility is designed to handle “high risk” produce such as meat and plants and trees, and has 14 truck bays, as well as sterile areas and airlock quarantine zones designed to prevent cross-contamination between different commodity categories.
Nearly 70 workers, including port health workers, veterinarians and dockers, were expected to work at the facility inspecting goods 365 days a year, along with officials from the state Animal and Plant Health Agency and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Port health officials had already been recruited.
When the Guardian visited on Tuesday, workers were laying the last of the paving stones in front of the building. Inside, the freezers – which would have been used to store meat products during the control process – were tested and operated in a freezing -20°C (-4°F).
Stephen Morgan, the Labor MP for Portsmouth South, has written to Rees-Mogg to express his concern at the waste of public money building border control facilities that may not be needed.
Rees-Mogg said in response that the government would work with the port to “find ways to minimize such costs or, where possible, recoup costs”.
The Guardian understands government officials have been visiting the Portsmouth facility in recent days as ministers explore other potential uses for the border facilities.
Portsmouth City Council is asking ministers to reimburse the original funding shortfall and give them clarity on whether the border checkpoints will ever be needed.
As the government announced its U-turn on introducing import controls, Rees-Mogg said it did not want to burden British businesses and consumers with additional costs during a livelihood crisis.
“The decision to defer and redesign sanitary and phytosanitary controls is probably the right one for the freight industry and for the economy,” said Richard Ballantyne, BPA chief executive officer.
“But from the point of view of the port operators, this is two years too late.”
This article was amended on 5 July 2022 to clarify that an estimated sum of up to £450m in taxpayers’ money is believed to have been spent on the new border control facilities, rather than £550m as stated in a previous version.