The cost of dredging at Ramsgate port will be paid for by potential ferry operator Seaborne Freight.
The firm, which has pledged to launch a Ramsgate/Ostend service by the end of March, says the dredging will begin tomorrow (January 3) but added that the sum being paid was “commercially sensitive.”
Seaborne Freight is one of three firms that has been awarded a government contract – worth in total £107 million – designed to provide extra ferry capacity to UK ports in the event of a no deal Brexit on March 29.
The others are French company Brittany Ferries, receiving £46m and DFDS with an award of £47m. Seaborne was awarded £13.8million although the government says no payment will be made until the service is in operation.
The aim of the awards was to use UK ports to help alleviate pressure on Kent’s roads which would come with a ‘hard border’ and could lead to a backlog of traffic, particularly HGVs, trying to access Dover Port and the Eurotunnel. The ferry firms would add extra crossings to their timetables.
But there has been widespread criticism over the Seaborne award because the firm, as yet, has no registered vessels and no track record.
In response to the criticism the Department for Transport has insisted Seaborne Freight had been carefully vetted before being allocated the contract and said the company would be required “to meet a number of rigorous time-staged requirements” before any cash was handed over.
A DfT spokesman told the BBC if an effective ferry service is not running from Ramsgate by March 29 – when the UK exits the European Union – the contract could be cancelled.
Seaborne say the ‘time-staged requirements’ are “varied and multiple throughout the process to launch of service.” A spokesman for the firm said a non-disclosure agreement meant further information could not be released.
Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling has also defended the decision to award the Seaborne contract, telling the BBC: “I make no apologies for supporting a new British business. The reality is that it is a tightly drawn up contract that requires them to deliver.”
Members of Ramsgate Action group had questioned the award of the contract, adding: “It is beyond belief that Chris Grayling could approve handing over £14 million of taxpayers’ money in these circumstances.”
Seaborne Freight said directors and shareholders have been working over the last two years on a business plan to reintroduce the Ramsgate to Ostend ferry service from early 2019.
Despite prolonged negotiations no announcement has yet been made that a deal has been signed with Thanet council for the route. Thanet council says the authority is still “in discussions with Seaborne to establish a freight operation from Ramsgate to Ostend.”
Ostend mayor Bart Tommelein is reported in the Belgian press as saying agreements with the federal government and the police are still needed.
However Seaborne chief executive Ben Sharp is reported in the Financial Times as saying contracts have been signed in Thanet and Belgium and the firm has ‘opportunities’ for a number of vessels.
A service had been mooted to start in March last year but the date came -and went – with no sign of progress.
At the weekend Seaborne issued a statement to say two ships would be running on the Ramsgate/Ostend route by the end of March, with four vessels by the Summer.
The Seaborne spokesman today said the firm would not yet be releasing details of the vessels to be used, adding: “We are not commenting on the vessels, either those for the launch or those for introduction at a later stage,” due to “commercial sensitivities.”
The port cannot currently accommodate the larger cross-Channel ferries due to the restricted size of facilities.
There has not been a cross-Channel operation at Ramsgate since the collapse of TransEuropa in 2013 which left Thanet council owed an unpaid debt of £3.4 million accrued by the ferry firm in port fees.
According to Companies House records Seaborne has declared fixed assets of £35,169, shares totalling £53, debtors amount due within one year of £6,364 and creditors amount due within one year of £416,607.