Maritime sector


About 95% of UK imports and exports by volume go by sea. As travel and trade have changed over time, ships and their cargoes have developed in size, character and technology.

To encourage economic growth through trade and travel we:

  • encourage commercial development by ports
  • ensure effective regulation of vessels in UK waters
  • work to improve maritime security and safety, including search and rescue capabilities


To maintain effective ports for trade and travel we developed the National Policy Statement for Ports.

We aim to increase the number of vessels registered in the UK. This will provide a basis to develop an internationally competitive maritime sector. To do this:

  • we’ve introduced tonnage tax and reformed the ship registration process at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA)
  • we’re supporting seafarer training through the Support for Maritime Training scheme (SMarT)
  • the UK Ship Register (UKSR) works with the owners/managers, class societies and other stakeholders in the marine industry to improve the standards of safety at sea

The UK provides a comprehensive search and rescue service for those reported missing or in trouble either on land, on water or in the air. To continue to improve this service we are:

  • working with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to modernise HM Coastguard
  • in the process of procuring a fleet of new Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters


The government’s expectations for the port industry are set out in:

Guidance on safety for harbours and ports is contained in:

Guidance on how a harbour authority can apply to be designated with the power to make harbour directions is contained in:

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) determines the causes of marine accidents with a view to improving safety.

We reviewed ports policy and the interim conclusions were published in 2007:

In 2011, we published a note on how objections to harbour dues would be handled:

We initiated the Coastguard Modernisation programme to ensure HM Coastguard keep pace with changing demands, technologies and the economy.

To shape this policy, we used economic and statistical analysis, appraisal, evaluation, modelling, and research.

Who we’ve consulted

The government ran a consultation on ‘The draft ports national policy statement’ in 2009. This consultation document explained the context of the national policy statement and set out the main policies:

We also ran a consultation on ‘Sale of Trust Ports in England and Wales’ in May 2011. This looked at the possible sale of a major trust port under the Ports Act 1991, whether under a voluntary or compulsory sales process:

We ran a consultation on the future structure of HM Coastguard in July 2011. We announced our decisions on a small number of remaining points on 22 November 2011 following a further period of consultation:

Bills and legislation

The UK is a signatory to International Maritime Organization and International Labour Organization international agreements such as the Safety of Life at Sea Convention and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). We are obliged under international law to implement these agreements in UK law.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency webpage explains the UK approach to maritime legislation further.