Optimism on Merseyside

The Mersey Regional Cluster

Simon Eardley of Mersey Maritime, sets out the regional cluster organisation’s strategy for the Liverpool City Region and the Greater North West

With a long track record of driving job creation, business growth and strong representation for the maritime industry since its founding in 2003, Mersey Maritime is looking forward with optimism to its ongoing work in the Liverpool City Region. The importance of regional clusters and the organisations that run them has never been more central to the future of the local, regional and national economy than now as we emerge from the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic and look towards the opportunities that a post-Brexit environment presents. That’s the verdict of  Chris Shirling-Rooke, CEO of Mersey Maritime, the organisation responsible for representing the maritime sector across the region – a sector worth £4.2 billion, which employs 52,000 people and benefits the wider economy by £2.64 for every £1 generated within it.

There’s an appetite and recognition from government and from industry that regional bodies like Mersey Maritime, with their ear to the ground amongst businesses and organisations within the sector, have a vital role to play in driving forward future opportunities as we respond to the big and systemic challenges of our time: from the drive towards decarbonisation to pushing forward international trade opportunities right across the globe. And it’s no surprise that Mersey Maritime is now responsible for delivering key projects both within its own region and on a national scale as the Department for Transport and other government bodies look towards the cluster organisation to deliver agreed strategies and sector priorities.

Coastal communities, and the strength of their regional economy, are often heavily bound up with the maritime sector, not least because it offers good quality jobs, skills and career opportunities for people looking to get involved in a range of diverse subsectors. Mersey Maritime sits at the heart of this work in the Liverpool City Region with a driving ambition to be a catalyst for growth, have a direct impact on policy, and help drive change for the good of the sector. It has come a long way in the last 20 years and has worked hard to build a genuine ecosystem which champions and supports one of the most diverse regions in the United Kingdom. The business was created as a not-for-profit organisation, and it now has over 200 active members which span the 33 sub-sectors of maritime and its related supply chain, including ports, shipping, offshore energy, engineering, professional services, logistics, manufacturing and academia.

Maritime 2050

Bulk carriers in Liverpool’s Gladstone Dock. Photo: Niels Johannes CC-BY-SA 4.0

Central to the work of Mersey Maritime is its support for the delivery of the key strategic document Maritime 2050, into which it had direct input. Maritime 2050, launched in 2019, is the first long-term strategy for the sector and was developed in close partnership with industry to highlight the government’s recognition of the importance of maritime to Britain’s future success. The report comprises seven key themes – Environment, Infrastructure, People, Security, Technology, Trade and Competitive Advantage – and firmly sets out a vision for an industry responsible for facilitating 95 per cent of the UK’s trade and worth overall some £46 billion to the economy.

The essential nature of its work has been very apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic, with Mersey Maritime businesses playing a critical role in keeping the country fed, fuelled and supplied – and this despite the wider challenge of the UK’s departure from the European Union, which was also rumbling on for much of 2020. Organisations such as Mersey Maritime have a crucial role to play in translating a specific regional context to a national level and helping to make sure that policy drivers fully understand the needs of individual companies within an area. As the lead partner for the delivery of the Regional Growth element of Maritime 2050, supporting the rollout of similar regional cluster organisations right around the coastline of the UK, Mersey Maritime is recognised as the best in class both by the UK government and further afield, including the European Commission’s DG MARE. The third iteration of Mersey Maritime’s Maritime Exchange Conference, delivered in late June both in person and remote, saw major thought leaders, national politicians (including the Maritime Minister, Robert Courts MP) and industry specialists come together to review progress and plan the next stage of delivery. Mersey Maritime is fully committed to being at the forefront of the future delivery of many aspects of the strategy. The future truly is optimistic for the sector across the whole country.

More recent regional developments and activity have further underlined the core principles of the organisation and its priorities, from support for the successful Liverpool City Region Freeport bid to the ongoing prioritisation of the £23 million Maritime Knowledge Hub project and embarking on the next round of its bi-annual economic impact study in conjunction with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr). Each project has jobs, growth, innovation and business opportunity at its core. Take the Freeport bid, which Mersey Maritime put its full weight behind from an early stage in helping draw together key industry partners and identify a realistic plan to deliver what has the potential to be transformative.


Freeports are designated zones where normal tax and customs rules do not apply. These can be airports or other hubs as well as maritime ports. At a freeport, imports can enter with simplified customs documentation and without paying tariffs. We know that Liverpool is already regarded as the UK’s principal west coast and Atlantic-facing port area, and with the prospects of a UK–US international trade deal firmly on the agenda, the Freeport status confirmed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his March Budget has the potential to unleash a major economic shot in the arm for the region. Early projections suggest that the status could see the creation of some 14,000 jobs and provide an £850 million economic boost.

Mersey Maritime was one of the key industry bodies at the heart of drawing together the bid. It will see the Liverpool City Region Freeport covering multiple locations stretching as far as Port Salford at the other end of the Manchester Ship Canal, taking in the Port of Liverpool, Wirral Waters, Liverpool John Lennon Airport, plus logistics sites in Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens and West Lancs, and the Stobart rail freight terminal in Halton. There was no question that a cluster organisation like Mersey Maritime wouldn’t be a key player in this work, and it was proud to be so.

The Maritime Knowledge Hub

Visualisation of the projected Maritime Knowledge Hub, centred on the renovated Victorian hydraulic tower. The tower was originally modelled on the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Photo: Simon Eardley / Mersey Maritime

Underlining the Mersey Maritime commitment to accelerating jobs and growth in the region has been its driving ambition to deliver the planned Maritime Knowledge Hub Project at Wirral Waters within Birkenhead docks. This major regeneration project, delivered in partnership with Peel Land & Property and key regional/local government stakeholders, will see the transformation of an iconic but derelict nineteenth-century hydraulic tower into a centre of maritime excellence and innovation of national significance. With the drive towards decarbonisation, digitisation and the need for highly qualified jobs and future maritime skills of crucial importance in the years ahead, Mersey Maritime has been pushing this transformative vision at the highest levels of government for a number of years. At its heart will be a drive to support and encourage SMEs to engage with innovation as we collectively address the key grand challenges faced as the economy transitions to a low-carbon, net-zero future. The challenge is very acute within maritime, the reality being that to achieve net zero by 2050 the sector simply must be radically changed. In 2018 alone, the UK’s domestic shipping produced more greenhouse gas emissions than its rail and buses combined, putting into stark relief the scale of the difficulty to be overcome – but also the ambition that might sit behind innovative solutions to deliver decarbonisation. Mersey Maritime’s vision is that the Maritime Knowledge Hub will be the vehicle that does just that, by bringing the brightest and best together to lead the way.

Much of the work of Mersey Maritime is strongly focused on the delivery of its key strategic projects and priorities, as outlined in this article. But at its heart are the members that make the organisation what it is. Driven by the motto ‘Stronger Together’, this principle sits at the heart of all the activity engaged in. The calendar of events is relentlessly busy, with the London International Shipping Week in September and Mersey Maritime’s engagement in key seminars focused on regional growth during the biggest week in the UK maritime calendar. Fittingly, the week will conclude with the seventh Mersey Maritime Industry Awards, #MMIA21. Regarded as the country’s largest and leading maritime-focused awards, after a year of unprecedented challenge the theme will be ‘Building Back Better’, marking a real and tangible celebration of the dynamism, resilience and prospects for the industry in the years ahead. The celebration will show precisely how valuable the work of Mersey Maritime is, putting a major spotlight on the many businesses, individuals, charities and stakeholders who make it what it is.

Simon Eardley is Mersey Maritime’s Partnerships and Policy Co-ordinator.