It seems it is the end of the line for ferry service hopes from Ramsgate.
Approval of the 2019-20 Thanet council budget last week (February 28) means cash that would have been used to keep the port in a state of readiness for ferry operations has now been stripped out of spending plans. Another £130,000 of savings have also been agreed for this year making £630,000 (£730,000 for a full year) in cuts although there has been no explanation of where these will be made.
The decision comes at the end of the saga of Seaborne Freight proposals for a Ramsgate/Ostend ferry service which, in December, saw the firm awarded a £13.8 million government contract for extra ‘Brexit-resilience’ crossings despite having no ferries and no company track record.
In the beginning…
The company had been in negotiations with Thanet council over the proposed service since 2017. A start date of March 2018 came – and went- with not a ferry in sight.
It followed an announcement by former Ostend mayor Johan Vande Lanotte in October 2017 that a ‘basic agreement’ has been made for the ferry line.
When asked by The Isle of Thanet News whether a suitable ferry was available for the operation the Ostend mayor said he ‘thought’ there was.
Only one vessel was identified out of three proposed for the route, the former Dover-Calais ferry MS Nord Pas de Calais. To date no ships have been bought or chartered by Seaborne Freight.
The announcement had been made in the run up to the 2018 elections in Ostend, which Vande Lanotte lost.
In April 2018 Thanet council confirmed no contracts had yet been signed with Seaborne but added that discussions were being held with “several parties to consider the future of a potential ferry operation across various routes.”
Council leader Bob Bayford said work on ferry operations was the priority for Ramsgate Port.
In June we reported losses at The Port of Ramsgate of £20million had been made since 2010, according to Thanet council’s statement of accounts for each financial year from 2010/11 to 2017/18.
The figures exclude £5million in live export compensation and £3.4million for bankrupt TransEuropa Ferries unpaid fees and charges.
In July it was revealed Kent County Council was urging the Government to invest in the Port of Ramsgate and make more use of current lorry parking facilities at the Manston airport site as part of preparations for Brexit.
In August Seaborne Freight said it was aiming to begin sailings at the end of the year – and launched a website advertising the route.
The same month Ramsgate Action Group agreed to pass a motion of no confidence in the management of the port.
The following day Thanet council leader Bob Bayford announced he had taken over responsibility for Ramsgate port and harbour.
The Conservative leader said he would be taking plans in a ‘new direction’ and a detailed review of costs and income for both the port and the harbour was underway.
He also revealed the authority would be looking at marina development alongside talks with Seaborne.
Marine Development Limited had previously offered to carry out an appraisal. The firm had been in talks with county councillor Paul Messenger and the Ramsgate Action Group (RAG), and had also met with Cllr Bayford and Thanet council officers Madeline Homer and Gavin Waite offering to produce a feasibility study to create a marina development.
The study would have looked at options for operational integration of the Royal Harbour and Marina Village, accommodating larger yachts, creating a berth for small cruise ships, the possible repositioning of the Royal Harbour based fishing fleet; wind farm support vessels; pilot services and associated support services. Also included is a suggestion for the creation of a hotel and conference centre surrounded by retail outlets, artisan workshops and markets.
In October a presentation on Ramsgate port and harbour finances resulted in confusion– and a suggestion was made that selling the site could be ‘considered’ . Cllr Bayford denied suggestions that Thanet council was considering selling the port “at that moment”, but said a complete review of the estate and leases was being carried out.
He added: “As part of the review all options are being considered.”
Thanet council pays a £246,000 lease fee to Crown Estates for the land.
In November Thanet council slammed a request to investigate accusations of potential bribery in officer dealings over proposals for a ferry service at Ramsgate port as “unsubstantiated,”
A report was made by Ramsgate resident Steve Coombes to council leader Bob Bayford in July alleging a bribe had been alluded to during a meeting regarding proposals for a Ramsgate-Ostend ferry service.
Cllr Bayford took the matter to Thanet council’s monitoring officer Tim Howes who then had a meeting with Mr Coombes. Thanet council said there was no evidence to support an investigation.
A week later Thanet council said the results of a capability review showed the Port of Ramsgate could have the potential to provide enough sailings to divert 3,360 lorry movements per day from the planned Operation Brock queuing system on the M20 and M26 to support ‘post-Brexit resilience.’
A spokesman said that with a £26million investment, Ramsgate has the potential for up to 24 sailings a day.
The move was being suggested as a strategy for reducing pressure at Dover if France introduces immediate checks on trucks crossing the Strait of Dover as a result of a no deal Brexit.
The call for the panel followed the presentation of a 1,273 signature petition organised by the Ramsgate Action Group declaring a vote of no confidence in the council’s ability to run the port and harbour and demanding that Thanet District Council create an independent working party to investigate the losses and bring forward a comprehensive regeneration plan within six months.
There has been no publication of minutes from a meeting held later that month.
During the Christmas period news emerged that Seaborne Freight had been awarded a government contract worth £13.8million to provide extra ferry capacity to UK ports in the event of a no deal Brexit on March 29 – despite having no ferries and no track record.
In January the Jetsed dredger began working at Ramsgate port as part of preparations for a potential ferry service.
Seaborne Freight, the firm that wants to operate a Ramsgate/Ostend route, said it was footing the bill.
The same month Britain and Ireland’s largest union, Unite, called for transport secretary Chris Grayling to resign in the wake of the ‘no-deal Brexit’ ferry service contracts.
The £107 million deal with three firms, including Seaborne Freight, was slammed for ignoring the role of Eurotunnel.
In a letter, acquired by the Financial Times it emerged that Eurotunnel’s chief executive Jacques Gounon had written to Mr Grayling accusing him of engaging in anti-competitive practices, confirming that Eurotunnel could undertake the work and threatening legal action, if similar contracts are not awarded.
Last week the government agreed to pay £33million to Eurotunnel to settle the lawsuit.
Again in January, Thanet council budget papers revealed the authority was planning to axe £630,000 (£730,000 for a full year) from its budget for Ramsgate Port if a ferry service contract had not been signed by the end of this month.
The authority needed to find savings of £1.8 million in order to balance the books. Councillors were told the biggest expense was at Ramsgate Port.
The cut, which includes removing £500,000 to keep the port in a state of readiness for a ferry service, is agreed by Cabinet members as Seaborne comes under increasing scrutiny both locally and nationally.
Seaborne said operations would 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 cast doubt on whether this is possible.
At the end of the month a Parliament select committee questioned the legality of the government contract awards to the three ferry companies, particularly Seaborne Freight.
Committee chairman Lilian Greenwood MP wrote to Secretary of State, Chris Grayling MP, demanding answers over the legality of awarding the contracts without a competition process and questioning whether emergency powers applied when a No Deal Brexit was a foreseeable event.
She has also raised numerous questions in regard to the Seaborne contract, asking what due diligence was carried out, whether steps were taken to establish the experience of the firm’s directors, whether Seaborne ability to deliver was examined, whether there are RoRo vessels available that are suitable for Ramsgate, whether assessment has been made of the work that will need to take place at Ramsgate Port and the funding for it, what border and customs checks will be in place and whether support of a British start-up raises questions of illegal state aid.
Submissions published by the Transport Committee from two experts conclude the contracts were not legal.
On February 7 Thanet council postponed a decision on whether to ditch the port funding when the budget report was withdrawn following discussions between Thanet council leader Bob Bayford and Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling.
Council leader Bob Bayford said that although an ‘uncomfortable decision’ may have to be made to close sections of the port and make cost savings an approach from the Department for Transport would now delay that until a date on or before March 11.
He added that the importance of Ramsgate in Post-Brexit resilience plans had been recognised and the DfT was keen to “keep the option of Ramsgate alive.”
Just over 24 hours later news broke that the government contract with Seaborne had been terminated.
The Department for Transport said the agreement has been axed as Seaborne would not reach its contractual requirements and the firm’s backer Arklow Shipping has pulled out of the deal.
Arklow Shipping, which is based in Ireland and also has operations in Rotterdam, has a fleet of modern singledeck, box hold and container fitted vessels ideally suited for the carriage of project cargoes, grain, generals and bulk commodities. It does not have ro-ro vessels.
Arklow’s involvement had not been made public prior to the announcement of Seaborne’s contract being terminated and the shipping firm later said there had been no signed contracts with the company.
The DfT said no monies had been paid to Seaborne and that the government stood by the due diligence carried out on the firm.
In Parliament Secretary of State Chris Grayling previously said Seaborne’s “business and operational plans were assessed for the Department by external advisers, including Slaughter and May, Deloitte and Mott MacDonald.
“These included Seaborne’s plans to charter vessels for service, as is common across many transport modes including airlines and rail operators. We also conducted searches on the directors of Seaborne via a third party, and found nothing that would prevent them from contracting with the Government.”
On February 12 a memorandum to the House of Commons released by the National Audit Office revealed Seaborne Freight was flagged as being a ‘high risk proposition’ before government awarded the firm a post-Brexit extra capacity contract.
The memorandum revealed the Department for Transport planned to invest £3 million of government funds for work to make Ramsgate Port ready for a new ferry service and would have bought 50% of tickets for extra capacity crossings.
It emerged that on December 17, 2018, the Department asked its legal advisers to do a basic background check on Seaborne. These checks included Seaborne’s filing history with Companies House and that no winding-up orders had been made against it. The Department says it was not aware at the time of allegations that were made about the directors of Seaborne and says these “were not substantiated by checks it had undertaken prior to contract award.”
It also revealed that Seaborne said the ‘pizza delivery’ terms and conditions of service on the Seaborne website were “a draft place-holder that contained errors and that its booking system, available only to approved trade customers, will include the actual terms and conditions of sale.”
On February 20 it is announced Ramsgate Port will receive £136,362 as part of Government Brexit resilience plans.
The written ministerial statement was published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government outlining an extra £1.5million of funding – making a total of £3.14million – to be shared between 19 UK ports impacted by the withdrawal from the European Union.
The funding is to “allow them to increase resources to work through the immediate impacts from Brexit, such as ensuring the port’s resilience and potential impacts of greater traffic to surrounding communities.”
On February 28 Thanet council agrees the budget, including slashing the port funds.
Councillors hear that a Ramsgate ferry service is now off the table with council leader Bob Bayford revealing a deal was supposed to have been signed the day after the original budget was postponed.
It is not been detailed how the additional £130,000 of port cash will be saved. This was queried by Labour’s Peter Campbell and Thanet Independent Councillors leader Stuart Piper who said members and the public were being “kept in the dark.”
It was revealed that a feasibility study for the port – on how else the port could be used- will be completed by the end of 2019.
County councillor Paul Messenger welcomed the news, saying: “An independent feasibility study which transparently and openly costs all options for the port is the best way for councillors and senior management at TDC to reach a clear and rational decision to settle once and for all the future of the port.
It is also the best way to turn a huge drain on TDC’s resources into a profitable asset for the town and the district.”
UKIP leader Chris Wells said his party had always proposed £30,000 for a feasibility study for the harbour and port of Ramsgate for this year;s budget, adding that it should be paid for by a minor reduction in the proposed £3 million council office refurbishment budget.
He added: “In just one short year (Cllr Bayford) has taken personal control of the Local Plan process, resulting in the threat of a 24 hour freight hub extracting a price over the heads of our community.
“He then takes personal charge of the port, resulting in the catastrophic mess that has been predictable for some weeks. He has made Ramsgate a laughing stock in the international media, and a talisman of failure.”
Karen Constantine, for Labour, said any plans for the port – ferry service or marina village – needed proper public consultation first.
She added: “Otherwise we are in danger of doing what we always do, not engaging and listening to people properly. We need to present a range of options in a proper consultation process.”
South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay said today (March 4): “ In some ways, with the likelihood of Seaborne or others coming to Ramsgate now vanishingly small, despite government support, this is an opportunity to bring closure to this long-running saga despite aspirations across many Thanet District Council administrations.
“It cannot be said that all have not tried. I was pleased to note the 2019/20 budget passed by the council reflecting this reality with a commitment for a feasibility study as to the way forwards.
“We have a unique asset of 32 acres of prime waterfront land that other areas would regard as a gold-plated gift for positive regeneration. I would recommend we get together as a community and look to a new future that would benefit the area, it is something I’ve been encouraging for four years.”
Ramsgate Port has racked up a deficit of more than £20million since 2010, excluding losses of £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.
The port has a temporary deal with car shipper GEFCO but there has not been a ferry service since TransEuropa Ferries filed for bankruptcy in April 2013.
The last successful operation was run by Sally Line Ferries. The company, founded in 1981, operated between Ramsgate and Dunkerque. Between 1993 and 1998 there was also a service to Ostend. Sally ceased operations in 1998.