How One Councillor’s Vote Saved Portsmouth Port From Privatisation

Few know Syd Rapson, but he made the city millions.

by Aaron Bastani

23 April 2024

An aerial shot of large boats docked at Portsmouth International Port
Photo: Portsmouth International Port

As you pull into Portsmouth International Port, several flags meet your eye. One is the union flag – no surprise for a harbour of national importance. Alongside it, though, is another, much older banner – that of the city itself. The origins of that image, a crescent and star with eight points, date as far back as 800 years – with some positing that the symbol was bestowed on the city by Richard the Lionheart. As with so many historic ports, from Hamburg to Athens, ready access to the world forged a powerful sense of local identity. 

This particular port first opened almost fifty years ago (Portsmouth’s military docks stretch back to the 13th century), and is the sort of quiet success story often overlooked by the national media. It adds £390m to the UK economy, and £180m locally. It has created 5,500 jobs, and more than 9m people use it every year. In comparison to aviation, it offers a sustainable form of international transport. The port authority is aiming for net zero by 2030, and zero emissions by 2050. Then there’s the fact it made £8m in profit last year.

But the best part? Portsmouth International Port is publicly owned – but only just. In 1990, it was saved from privatisation by the skin of its teeth, when a Labour councillor defied custom and used his privilege as Lord Mayor to cast a second vote for keeping it in public hands. 

‘A living, breathing argument for public ownership.’

Portsmouth International Port first opened in 1976 – a time when public authorities still had the resources and confidence to build stuff. Over the preceding decade, private ferry companies had lobbied for an alternative to Southampton to reduce journey times. City authorities eventually agreed. While it is fashionable to view the 1970s as a time of chaos and state failure, it’s hard to imagine a similar-sized city having such ambitions today.

Fourteen of Britain’s 20 largest ports are in private hands. Giant hubs, like Southampton and Felixstowe, have been owned by major multinationals since a wave of privatisations in the 1980s. In this regard, Portsmouth, the island city, is an outlier. 

More than anything else, Portsmouth International Port offers a living, breathing argument for public ownership. Not only does it work – it thrives. The port’s cruise and ferry terminal, which opened in 2011, uses thermal energy from seawater to heat and cool the building – using only 20% of the energy one would expect from a traditional system. The complex, which was expanded in 2023 and includes a roof covered in solar panels, is now fully carbon neutral. 

Even more impressive is the Shore Power project, which will serve the port’s three busiest berths. This will permit visiting ferry or cruise ships to turn off their engines, ‘plug in’ and use green electricity to run their onboard systems while docked. It will also be used to charge two hybrid ships, owned by Brittany Ferries, which plan to run on a mix of electricity and liquid natural gas. Such measures are projected to save 20,000 tonnes of CO2 a year – equivalent to 2,500 households. As well as being a vital step in the fight against climate change, that is a game changer for the city’s air quality.

Besides demonstrating that commercial success and decarbonisation can easily coexist, the port’s profits allow the city’s council to provide vital public services. This has proven invaluable in the context of austerity. Between 2011 and 2015 alone, Westminster cut funding to the city by 30%.

By contrast, neighbouring Southampton – home to the country’s second-largest container port and busiest cruise terminal – recently had to be bailed out by the government after facing bankruptcy. Its port was privatised in 1982, and political figures there look on with envy at what public ownership makes possible just down the M27.

‘The most important vote in the city’s storied history.’

And yet things could so easily have been very different. In 1990, when the Conservatives still controlled Portsmouth city council, there was a vote on whether the port should be sold. The Tories ruled through a minority administration at the time. While all their councillors voted for privatisation, almost everyone else opposed them. The vote was tied.

It was only at this point that Labour councillor Syd Rapson, in his capacity as Lord Mayor, voted for a second time against the proposal. Convention dictated this should not happen – although if the Lord Mayor is to vote a second time, the rules say it should be to maintain the status quo – but Rapson went ahead anyway and ensured the port stayed in public hands. “We saved so many millions of pounds because of that vote – we kept the rates much lower and did so much for the city,” he said.

Rapson would later become Labour’s MP for Portsmouth North.

It’s easy to treat local elections as referenda on a single issue, like Brexit. Or an opportunity to show your distaste for a certain leader. Yet councils retain significant power – for good or ill. Had one more councillor voted for privatisation, and the Lord Mayor subsequently refrained from joining in, then Portsmouth’s finances would look very different today. The Lord Mayor’s vote was, in all likelihood, the most important in the city’s storied history. It guaranteed better child and elderly care and lower council tax for generations. 

If you want to see the power of municipal government, and how public ownership can not only provide better services, but make citizens money too, there are few better examples than Portsmouth International Port. Today few of the city’s inhabitants will know the name Syd Rapson, who is 82 and still around to tell the story. But they all owe him an enormous debt. Or more precisely – £8m. And that’s just for last year. 

Update, 25/04/2024: Syd Rapson’s age has been corrected.

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.

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