Thanet council is expected axe £730,000 from its budget for Ramsgate Port if a ferry service contract has not been signed by the end of this month.
In a report to Cabinet members meeting on Tuesday to discuss the 2019-2020 budget it says Thanet council will be “at significant risk of overspending the proposed budget,” unless action is taken.
The authority needs to find savings of £1.8 million in order to balance the books. Councillors have been told the biggest expense is at Ramsgate Port.
The report states: “In view of the financial pressures that were identified within the MTFS, the council has had to make some tough decisions. It has reviewed a number of services where savings and/or efficiencies can be realised in order to arrive at a deliverable/balanced budget.
“The largest single item is related to the port, which is proposed to have £500,000 growth removed and a further £130,000 savings, totalling £630,000 (or £730,000 in a full year). This recognises that in the absence of a ferry operation, the port will undertake significant cost reductions to start to reduce its budgeted deficit.
“ The key decision point for the port is the council meeting on February 7, which sets the 2019-20 budget. If there is not a confirmed, contracted ferry operation by the end of January when the council budget report is published, the cost savings will be recommended and if approved, will be actioned.
“Any further delay would require alternative savings to be identified, which is too late to inform the presentation of a balanced budget to council.”
Ferry service proposal
A Ramsgate/Ostend ferry service has been proposed by start-up company Seaborne Freight but, despite prolonged negotiations over a two-year period, a deal is yet to be signed for either port.
Seaborne has come under increasing scrutiny following the announcement that it had been granted a £13.8 million contract with the government to provide additional ferry capacity in the event of a no-deal Brexit – despite having no vessels or track experience as yet.
Seaborne say operations will start in late March – to coincide with the UK withdrawal from the European Union – initially with two ships and 200 staff but commentators in Ostend and in Parliament have cast doubt on whether this is possible.
A service had been mooted to start in March last year but the date came -and went – with no sign of progress.
Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, says there will be no taxpayer cash for Seaborne Freight unless they deliver the service by the March 29 date.
Thanet council is due to join talks this coming week with Seaborne, Kent County Council and Ostend mayor Bart Tommelein, who told the BBC it was “impossible” that Ostend would be ready by the March deadline.
Ramsgate Port has racked up a £20million deficit since 2010. Losses include £5million in live export compensation paid after the High Court overruled a live export ban from the port put in place by the then-Labour led council and £3.4million for bankrupt TransEuropa Ferries unpaid fees and charges.
Last October a presentation on Ramsgate port and harbour finances resulted in confusion at a Thanet council meeting – and a suggestion was made that selling the site could be ‘considered.’
The finance scrutiny panel meeting was given the presentation by council leader Bob Bayford but the explanation of accounts for the port and harbour created more questions than answers.
Cllr Bayford attempted to explain how £750,000 accounted for as central support services could actually only be narrowed down to £721,000 including £252,000 spent on areas including officer salaries, HR and procurement, and said in hindsight it should not have been classified as central support charges.
More confusion followed as finance officer Tim Willis attempted to outline how charges attributed to the harbour were then recharged to the port and vice versa due to staff and services used at both sites.
But this raised a question from Thanet UKIP leader Chris Wells over where a “missing £320,000” was in the accounts and questions from Cllr Peter Campbell over why the port and harbour did not have separate account breakdowns.
The question provoked an angry response with Cllr Bayford saying there was no missing sum of money.
In December a 1,273 signature petition organised by the Ramsgate Action Group was presented to council. It declared a vote of no confidence in the council’s ability to run the port and harbour and demanded that Thanet District Council create an independent working party to investigate the losses and bring forward a comprehensive regeneration plan within six months.
At that meeting RAG chairman Steve Coombes who the council has branded a vexatious complainant following a string of requests for port related information, outlined booked losses of £2million a year at the port, concerns over the viability of discussions with Seaborne Freight for a Ramsgate/Ostend ferry service and derision at the claim Ramsgate could assist in the event of a no deal Brexit with 24 sailings a day from the port.
He added: “RAG believes councillors have a duty to your voters to put a stop to this. To insist on an open, transparent independent review of the port.”
Mr Coombes said a new port working party should not be serviced by senior council management but have access to independent experts.
His view was backed by Labour councillors Iris Johnston and Karen Constantine.
Today Mr Coombes said: “RAG urges all councillors to call an emergency meeting of the full council to pass a motion of no confidence and put an end to the outrageous farce of (Cllr Bob Bayford’s) leadership.
“The long-suffering residents of Thanet can take no more and deserve better. Much, much better.”
Budget proposals for 2019-20 also include plans for £1,060,000 to be spent on the Ramsgate Flood and Coast Protection Scheme and £450,000 for Ramsgate Port Berth 2/3 & 4/5 replacement, carried over from this year’s budget. Some £2.8 million was spent on refurbishing the berths in 2017.
A final decision on the budget will be made by full council on February 7.