Matthew Hunt, Director, Port of Sunderland

Matthew Hunt, Director at Port of Sunderland, talks about the changing tide bringing waves of opportunity to the port

As the North Sea laps the quays lining the mouth of the River Wear, there is all of the hustle and bustle you might expect of an industrial port that is re-establishing itself as a thriving player in the maritime industry.

Rewind to the start of the last century and the industrial power of Sunderland was undeniable, with a quarter of the world’s ships born from the city’s yards. Now though, a very different picture is painted by the variety of vessels that sit as gentle giants on the waters of the Wear.

Port of Sunderland is leading the fleet with a forward-thinking team and millions of pounds of investment seeing it on a voyage to new destinations. Port director Matthew Hunt, at the helm for six years, tells BQ the story of the port’s rebirth and his ambitions for the future.

If you look around Sunderland you’ll find a city that is proud of its maritime past, one that regularly pays homage to its heritage and celebrates its history with memorials to the industry that put it firmly on the map.

And while Sunderland is a city that remembers what once was, it is also a city that is firmly facing forward, towards the bright future it is determined to make for itself.

At Port of Sunderland, we very much follow the same ethos – that our past as one of the most successful shipping towns in the world is one to be remembered but not dwelled upon. We have new hopes and goals for the port.

Municipally-owned, Sunderland City Council recognised that the port had significant capacity for development, and was a natural asset that should be capitalised upon. From this, the port was written into the city’s Economic Masterplan published in late 2010 – a blueprint for the city’s growth – as a key area for investment.

Since then, Port of Sunderland has seen wave after wave of investment for redevelopment projects, totalling many millions of pounds that has seen us undertake projects to get back into the black and to stay there.

We’ve taken steps to reclaim underused space, demolish old derelict buildings, add vital equipment to our inventory, create tens of thousands of square metres of storage space, resurface our quays and ensure our transport links are the best they can be.

Last year we saw our import and export credentials bolstered as our rail lines were reconnected almost 20 years since they were last in use. Add to this the city’s strategic transport corridor that will see the heart of the port directly linked to major trunk roads like the A1 and A19 when the New Wear Crossing is completed in 2018, and we’ll have the wind firmly in our sails.

We’re already reaping the benefits of these investments and changes, and not just at the port, but our work is having a ripple effect through the city.

This year we welcomed another cruise ship to our waters – last year we welcomed our first in 15 years – with more passengers than we have hosted before, and we’re pleased to say that other vessels are in talks to berth with us soon. We’re less than ten minutes from open sea, and when that is teamed with our city and wider region’s tourism offer, which is strengthening all of the time, and the fact we’re in walking distance of the city centre, it’s a really exciting time for Port of Sunderland as we look at the opportunities we could take advantage of.

But we’re far from a team that is still learning the ropes. All of the Port of Sunderland staff are time-served, and it’s this that has helped us to ensure our customers are given a service that ensures they berth with us again.

Traditional shipping industries have once again come to the fore, and from bulk cargo handling to warehousing, we have a portfolio that is helping us to secure more business and remain sustainable during a tough period for new and renewable energy. We’re excelling in the ‘traditional’ trade – with our cargo handling figures reaching record heights for the last two years running, and last year we handled 750,000 tonnes of cargo throughout.. But we’re not just a traditional port and we will be ready to welcome opportunities that may come in the future, when policy support drives the development of the wind energy sector.

Geographically, Port of Sunderland is ideally placed for renewables. With close proximity to sites like Dogger Bank, Firth of Forth and Hornsea, the potential is huge. Thanks to our work to reclaim swathes of land, the port enjoys official Enterprise Zone status, and we effectively have a blank-canvas set up of space ripe for the kind of work that will be needed to service these sites, and we are ready to seize the opportunity when it arrives.

It is continuing to make more and more sense for businesses to choose Port of Sunderland and we’re seeing that starting to happen with benefits reaching out across the city. What has changed our tide? The backing of our council and a team that is dedicated to the success of the port and its city.