Proposals to find an operator to bring ferry services back to Ramsgate Port will be discussed by Thanet council Cabinet members next month.
The last ferry to operate from Ramsgate was TransEuropa Ferries which went bankrupt in 2013 and left Thanet council with £3.4 million in unpaid berthing fees.
Since then a succession of ‘proposals’ have been mooted but not amounted to anything, including the ferryless ferry firm Seaborne Freight that was awarded a £13.8million government contract in December 2018 for extra ‘Brexit-resilience’ crossings but in 2020 went into liquidation owing almost £2 million.
In 2021, Thanet council secured £19.8m for Ramsgate as part of the Government’s Levelling Up Funding (LUF). Some £9.62m of this is set aside to improve the port and includes plans for a ‘Green Port’ projected to create 800 jobs, a Green Hub training centre for apprenticeships and training, hospitality and fishing fleet proposals as well as improvements to the berths, mooring spine and check-in/border facilities.
A total of £3.5 million is earmarked for port infrastructure.
A report to Cabinet members says over recent years interest has been expressed by ferry operators, EU ports and haulage companies for cross-channel operations at Ramsgate but this has been hampered by the need to pay for improved facilties.
The report adds: “Previously, Ramsgate lost out on ro-ro opportunities because private sector owned ports were able to invest in the required infrastructure, whilst the council was not in a position to do so.
“The challenge of a lack of capital funding is now resolved by the Levelling Up Fund grant award. Updating key port infrastructure at Ramsgate will constitute a step change in the attractiveness of Ramsgate to host a new cross channel service and will unlock new opportunities with potential operators.”
A report completed for the council by consultants Infrata says there is a demand for cross channel ferry freight services, with limited opportunities for expansion in other ports, meaning Ramsgate has a significant opportunity to take a share of the increase in cargo in the future.
Cabinet members are recommended to approve an option for a multi-purpose hybrid model offering a concession contract with a lease attached to it. Agreements with Brett Aggregrates and wind farm operators would remain in place.
The option would mean the council retaining the management of part of the Port, such as non-ro-ro traffic, with ro-ro cargo and traffic managed by a third party.
It would allow existing agreements with long term leaseholders to be retained and develop investment opportunities following the completion of the Green Campus project.
Negotiations would also be carried out with Brett Aggregates which wants to increase its operations with a further two acres of land. The existing aggregates site occupies two acres of land and is served by berth 4/5, which was replaced in 2022.
The site incorporates a concrete batching plant, which is served by some of the aggregates brought to the site via sea. Cement is brought to the site via road tanker and is stored in two silos. The concrete plant serves the local building industry in East Kent.
Cllr Ash Ashbee, Leader of Thanet District Council commented: “Thanet District Council has an exciting window to turn around the fortunes at the Port of Ramsgate, and realise the opportunities the commercial port provides. This is a massive opportunity for the district. The port is a national asset and we have a responsibility to ensure that we utilise it to its full potential.
“It is currently underutilised and in the last decade the landscape has shifted, with changes in the short sea ferry market following the UK’s exit from the EU, as well as increases in fuel and the cost of living crisis.
“One of the biggest hurdles has been the need for improvement works to the infrastructure, to be able to deliver a modern cross channel freight service. The Levelling Up Fund award now means we can undertake the changes needed to unlock new opportunities and propose a competitive process to attract an operator.
“Ultimately, in addition to any potential new crossing or operational model, as our bid for the Levelling Up Fund identified, we must give attention to continuing to ‘diversify our offer’. Since becoming Leader, I prioritised addressing the port’s operational capabilities and this proposal represents the result of that focus.
“We need to look at how we can do more within the available space, to make it more successful. The report that we’ll consider as a Cabinet provides a range of options for our review.”
If agreed a timeline for the project would include going out to tender for bids from operators in late April, creating a bidder shortlist by June and awarding the contract for operations in September.
Shadow council leader Cllr Rick Everitt said: “The levelling-up bid for Ramsgate was championed and put together under the Labour administration which ran the council from 2019-2021. Returning the port to full operational status in order to be able to take advantage of the kind of approaches that I know the council received in that period was a key element of the bid that our administration put together.
“There is, understandably, a level of public scepticism about demand because of the failure of TransEuropa and the various ghost operators who have been touted since, including by central government. However, I think most people in Ramsgate would be happy to see the port operating fully again, especially if that is providing jobs, skills training and income to the district.
“The £3.5m for this element of the levelling-up award can only be spent on the project for which it was awarded. A third party operator is only going to get involved if they believe that demand for the ro-ro operation exists and it will then be their risk, not the council’s, that it doesn’t materialise.
“We will be studying the detail of the proposal and we certainly believe that final decisions should be made in public by elected councillors, not officers, so we will be pressing on that point. But we believe this is an exciting opportunity for Ramsgate and Thanet, and that the council should seize it.”
The Port of Ramsgate was opened in 1981 with Sally Line operating services between Ramsgate and Dunkerque. Between 1993 and 1998 there was also a service to Ostend but this was moved to Dover and the Sally ceased operations in 1998 with the ending of duty free concessions.
TransEuropa Ferries was brought in but went bankrupt in 2013.
Between 2000 to 2011 the port made surpluses ranging between £50,000 to £850,000 per annum, but from 2012 onwards substantial losses have been recorded amounting to more than £25m.
In 2019 a report on the future of the port was carried out by consultant WSP covering four specific areas of commercial, residential, leisure and mixed use. The report suggested uses including reviving the hotel and conference centre plan for the Smack Boys Home building and creating industrial zones, waterfront homes, retail and themed leisure facilities.
The study looked at ideas including a hotel and conference centre, berthing for small cruise ships, waterfront homes and the possibility of a maritime village.
WSP also advised retaining commercial port functions so “ro-ro operations can be accommodated on a significantly condensed footprint compared to current operations.” A single berth was suggested.
Thanet council says there have also been a number of proposals and pitches ranging from a housing development, removal of existing commercial uses, proposals for a tall ship to be based in the Port, commercial fishing facilities, amongst others, but that these do not link back to the Local Plan.
A Port Narrative first published in November 2022 sets out in more detail port plans including the Green Campus.
7 port ‘proposals’ that never got out of the starting blocks
Euroferries announced it would be operating a 102m trimaran high speed service from Ramsgate by 2013.
Euroferries again announced it would be launching a Ramsgate to Boulogne service. It had also approached Thanet District Council back in 2009. No service emerged.
Thanet council issued a statement to say: “Thanet District Council can confirm that there is no agreement with Euroferries Express ltd. to facilitate a cross-channel ferry service between Ramsgate and Boulogne.”
Thanet council advised that talks were underway with potential ferry operators with names touted including DFDS.
Ferry expert Bill Moses said he planned to relaunch ferry services at the port
His plans were for an operator to carry up to 500,000 passengers by its second year of operation at Ramsgate.
It was revealed that Thanet council had failed in a bid to get Government funding of £4.17million, to be matched with £2million from the authority, to carry out plans which could double lorry capacity at the port to one million vehicles a year.
A three phase expansion was planned.
The first phase was to improve the port’s handling capacity, particularly for unaccompanied freight vehicles, with a double deck ro-ro berth.
The second phase was the development of an on-port new alongside quay for the existing aggregates cargo and bulk cargo expansion and secondly an off-site freight logistics hub at Manston Business Park.
A third phase of seaward port expansion would have been dependent on demand.
The shipping expert taken on by Thanet council said the authority could buy its own ferry to run cross-Channel services from Ramsgate.
Robert Hardy, of Paradox Consulting, was one of the Ramsgate representatives who attended the industry Multimodal expo in Birmingham.
Talking to Shipping TV Mr Hardy said: “We have got to write a model as though we are starting our own ferry company. In fact I asked the question when I was brought in why don’t we buy the ferry, why are we relying on someone else to share our view?”
Thanet council later issued a statement to say: “The Port does not intend to either purchase or operate ships ourselves.”
A tweet emerged ‘revealing’ Thanet council discussions with a Polish ferry company about bringing services to Ramsgate Port.
The council’s then-consultant Robert Hardy was believed to have been in talks with Polferries.
The saga of Seaborne Ferries begins when the company entered negotiations with Thanet council over a proposed service in 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’ had been made for the ferry line.
In August 2018 Seaborne Freight said it was aiming to begin sailings at the end of the year – and launched a website advertising the route.
During the Christmas period of that year 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– despite having no ferries and no track record.
By January 2019 Britain and Ireland’s largest union, Unite, called for then 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. 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.
In February 2019 the government contract with Seaborne was 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.
By September 2020 Seaborne lodged a resolution to wind up with Companies House and a document to say voluntary liquidator Quantuma had been appointed.
According to the documents the firm had assets of around £39,000 in computer equipment, furniture and cash.
But it owed almost £2million, made up of £1.2m to trade and expense creditors, a £400,000 loan, £323,000 in directors loans and a £100 corporation tax bill to HMRC.
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