How Wales’ biggest port town has coped with Brexit one year on

As Welsh towns go Holyhead has had to reckon with more upheaval than most. The largest town on the Isle of Anglesey is home to just over 10,000 people but is also one of the UK’s largest commercial and ferry ports with millions of heavy goods vehicles, trucks, and tourists passing through every year. The success of the port, which has existed in some form since 1821, is worth millions of pounds and supplies hundreds of jobs in a region which has seen deprivation levels rise.

But one year on from Brexit traffic figures are worrying. Stena Line has said trade is down 30% at its Welsh ports, which it owns and operates. In December 2020 traders and business figures in Holyhead spoke about the chaos as the hours ticked away until the UK officially left the EU.

: The startling impact of ‘taking back control’ on the port at the frontline of Brexit in Wales One year on much seems still unclear. The UK is embroiled in fraught negotiations over post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland while the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made the impact of Brexit on Holyhead difficult to measure.

‘I think people have moved on’

Dale Fleming runs the Chester Inn pub in the town and said his business had been hit hard by the pandemic.

“Business hadn’t been too good but it picked up again when I took down the plastic [Covid-19] screens,” he said, adding that fewer people had been coming in again since the Welsh Government introduced restrictions to combat the Omicron variant. “When they closed us down last time it was so complicated I lost all my beer so I had to start again.”

The Chester Inn pub in Holyhead

Mr Fleming said he thought traffic through the port had picked up since 2020. “With duty free coming back again it has picked up a lot from the Welsh side,” he said. “I’m not sure about the Irish side.

“I think people have moved on [from Brexit]. They don’t talk about it anymore. They are looking to the future, not looking back.”

He said that, similarly to the pandemic, Brexit was something “we’ve got to live with and get on with it”.

‘The town looks grey and miserable’

Michele Bradford runs a holiday apartment on the marina in Holyhead. She said business had been “really good” in 2021 but had not reached either pre-Brexit or pre-pandemic levels. “We had a really good summer but it wasn’t as good as the previous summer when we re-opened after lockdown – that was brilliant,” she said. “We are nowhere near where we were before Brexit or the pandemic.”

Michele said she had noticed certain trends in the last 12 months. “We have had less people travelling to and from Dublin. We used to get a lot of them.”

How Wales' biggest port town has coped with Brexit one year onMichele Bradford, pictured with her husband David, runs holiday accommodation in Holyhead

She added that while she had anticipated an uptick in customers due to the return of the Dublin-Holyhead return shopping ‘booze cruise’ that comes with cheaper on-board shopping she said they had “got nothing”. Michele said she didn’t feel freight traffic through Holyhead port had taken a hit in the past year either.

“When there was the storm in December the town was full of lorries. I don’t think [Brexit] is having a negative effect. “The whole town was up in arms because they were parking anywhere they could because they don’t have RoadKing anymore.”

After years of political wrangling plans to turn the RoadKing unit at Parc Cybi, previously Holyhead’s main truck stop, into a customs facility were submitted by the UK government in November. Operating 24 hours a day and seven days a week it’s expected that the facility would process up to 350 HGVs over a 24-hour period. Amid fears over 24 job losses at the site HMRC has said it expects the development to create 390 temporary jobs during construction and another 175 permanent roles.

How Wales' biggest port town has coped with Brexit one year onThe RoadKing service station, a favourite with truckers, has been sold to HMRC to be developed as a customs facility

Rhun ap Iorwerth MS represents Anglesey in the Senedd.

He said the problems caused by losing RoadKing and “lack of settled truck-stopping facilities” in Holyhead needed to be addressed in order to avoid trucks parking all over the town. “I’m pushing hard for that to be resolved and I think it will but that has been directly borne out of Brexit,” he said. “RoadKing selling to HMRC was very much helped by the fact they saw such a cliff-edge drop-off in business at the truck stop.

It was a no-brainer for them.” Other traders in the town, like Helen Evans, have moved out of the town altogether. Helen ran LL65 Emporium in Holyhead for almost 10 years before moving in October, opening a new artisan craft shop and gallery space in nearby Amlwch.

She insisted that her decision to leave Holyhead was not based on fears over the town’s future. “One of the problems is people have got into the habit of going to the bigger shops while the small ones have been shut during the pandemic,” she said. “We have suffered as a whole. I think that’s something that will take a while to change.

I still had some very loyal customers [in Holyhead] but some of the regulars I’ve not seen this year. But I still had some lovely messages when I left. “I did not leave because it wasn’t doing well.

I just got an offer on a good little shop.”

How Wales' biggest port town has coped with Brexit one year onHelen Evans, who ran the LL65 crafts shop in Holyhead town centre, has moved to Amlwch

Helen believes Holyhead will “always be busy” citing the fact that someone has already offered to take her old unit there. “As I was finishing there seemed to always be trucks and passengers coming through. There’s so much motivation in Holyhead.

We as businesses have all kept in touch. “There’s always going to be change – it’s that sort of town. Time will tell with tourists going through on the ferry.

I think cheap offers on the ferries would make a big difference.” But she admitted the port remains “essential” to the future of the town: “Hopefully the cruise ships will come back. That would be great.”

How Wales' biggest port town has coped with Brexit one year onHolyhead town centre

Michele Bradford said the town itself had yet to show any improvement since the UK left the EU. “More money needs to be put into the town instead of going down south,” she said.

“I get comments from my guests and it’s always about how the apartment was lovely but it’s a shame about the town being so run-down. It’s all politics. There needs to be investment – the town looks grey and miserable.”

Irish Maritime Development Office figures show trade from Dublin to Holyhead and Liverpool was down 19% this year (compared to 2020) and 30% on the two routes from Rosslare in south-east Ireland to the Welsh ports of Pembroke and Fishguard. Meanwhile trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was up 17% and direct freight trade between Ireland and the rest of EU up 50%. Ian Davies, head of UK ports at Stena Line, explained that there was a huge surge in freight trade through Welsh ports due to stockpiling pre-Brexit before it “fell of a cliff” on January 1, 2021.

“The first two weeks we were down 70% and by about four or five months in we were about 30% down and that’s where we seem to have plateaued. They haven’t really improved from that point.” Mr Davies said there had been a big rise in traffic from Ireland to France, which was 300% up compared to 2019, as well as increased traffic going directly from Northern Ireland to Liverpool.

“Traffic driving from Northern Ireland to Dublin to come to Holyhead represented about 25% of what was going through Holyhead and we’ve lost virtually all of that. It’s the longer, more expensive route but there’s a lot less paperwork.” Mr Davies added that across all Stena Line’s routes around Europe figures were up compared to 2019 except on Ireland-Wales routes.

He said 2021 had been “the perfect storm” with both freight and tourism affected by the pandemic. He said the UK’s decision to delay checks on goods coming from Ireland to Britain, announced in December, was welcome but that clarity was needed on the Northern Ireland protocol – an element of Brexit which agreed that Northern Ireland would continue to follow EU rules on product standards but which has been the subject of major negotiations in recent months. He also said the Common Transit Convention, which is used to ease the movement of goods between or through any common transit countries, needed to be modernised as it was hampering freight trade.

“I think more of it will start to come back – people get used to systems and processes,” he said, adding that Stena Line were “very much committed” to its Welsh ports in the long term. “We will without doubt be down from where we were. It’s not going to be an overnight fix.

“We took a huge hit when the economic crisis happened in 2007 and 2008. It took four or five years to come back. “It’s not great in the short term but the market goes through economic cycles.”

Mr ap Iorwerth said the continued downturn in trade through Holyhead port was “worrying”. “Every lorry or bit of cargo reflects jobs and the vibrancy of the port of Holyhead. It’s a hugely important employer and you don’t want to see that happening.”

He said hearing government ministers and advisers saying they expect the trade volume to remain “significantly lower” did not bode well for the future. “The clear choice taken by many to go directly from continental Europe to Ireland because it’s easier in terms of red tape and bureaucracy and the appetite for doing more trade between Northern Ireland and mainland UK – all of that is bad news for Holyhead.”

How Wales' biggest port town has coped with Brexit one year onThe port of Holyhead

Mr ap Iorwerth said the tourist trade had been hit by the pandemic and that questions over how to bring people into the town were ongoing and unrelated to either Covid or Brexit. He said there were some positives but many details still needed to be ironed out.

“I don’t want border facilities but we’re there now and when there was talk of having them away from Anglesey, using a site in England, I campaigned to make sure they were in Holyhead. “There will be jobs in Holyhead for people there. Whilst it helps those individuals it in no way balances out the losses we are making from Brexit.

“The port is clearly facing pressures with jobs because of loss of trade but there are people working in all sorts of businesses in Holyhead that rely on exports. There are so many businesses who are finding it very hard to export and have stopped altogether because of the red tape.” He added that new possibilities such as the development of the port as an offshore energy hub were more important than ever due to Brexit. “We need to see the investment being made to bring the flexibility and added space into the port so it can make the most of those opportunities.

“The cruise sector had been growing prior to Covid but it’s also one where we need to put investment in and put Holyhead at the centre. Those things are all more important now. “You’ve always got to believe that there are new opportunities.

There will always be things we have lost but it was voted for and there are consequences of that.

You’ve got to deal with that.”

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