Politicians from different parties don’t always disagree, however it might appear to residents.
As leader of Thanet District Council from 2019-21, I was briefed on the multiple approaches we received from commercial operators interested in using Ramsgate Port for cargo movements. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the necessary post-Brexit border facilities in place or the seven-figure sum required to bring some of the key infrastructure back into use.
But an opportunity to do just that, along with other major investment in the port and harbour, arrived in 2021 with the government’s levelling-up funding programme.
By the time the bid put together for Ramsgate under the Labour administration had been successful, the Conservatives had regained minority control of the council. But my successor as leader, Ash Ashbee, had much the same experience of third-party interest in the port.
That was backed up by expert industry advice.
With a levelling-up award of £3.5m to make the necessary improvements, alongside £6.1m for a green campus on the site, her cabinet was able to kick off the process of looking for a commercial operator to run the port, which took place in June this year.
Cllr Ashbee said in February: “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… 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.”
Labour agreed. Oddly, though, when the election campaign got under way, it became clear the local Tories had two different positions on the port. One was their council leadership’s clear and continuing support, and then there was the view articulated on their candidates’ leaflets in Ramsgate, which stated that the party would support a ferry service only “if the deal was the right one” and otherwise “must look at a longer-term marina village”.
It is a measure of the state of the local Tories that when I showed Cllr Ashbee the leaflet in mid-April, she told me that it was the first time she had seen what her party was saying in Ramsgate. Neither of us believed that a “marina village” was anything but a fantasy.
Five months on, local MP Craig Mackinlay has published a column this week in which he announces: “I must say at this point that hoping for a ferry, however nominally desirable, is becoming ‘pie in the sky’”.
This was news to me, as leader again since May, and I know to the council officers whose initial market testing exercise attracted multiple significant approaches from major operators and who are now preparing to launch the formal tender process in October.
Indeed, it’s a surprising conclusion from the MP, who received a personal progress report on the Ramsgate levelling-up projects at the council offices as recently as August 31st.
It is inevitable – given the failure of TransEuropa in 2013, the multiple unfulfilled claims by Euroferries that they would operate from Ramsgate and the government’s own hapless £13.8m contract award in 2018 to Seaborne Ferries, who famously had no ships – that public scepticism will remain high until a service actually begins.
What is frustrating, however, is that someone well-placed to know better should fuel that doubt and do so without even having the courtesy of a discussion about it with the council, which owns the port and is the decision-making body. There is a risk the tender process and the substantial work done to date is being undermined by nothing more than speculation.
Craig Mackinlay says that he is “looking at more exciting job creation opportunities around the ‘green hub’ proposal” and hopes “to bring together a new consortium, with even more funding to put on the table to put to the Thanet levelling up board”.
To be clear, both my mind and my door remain open. The council will listen to any credible business cases, especially around the green campus, but the combined Margate and Ramsgate board on which the two Thanet MPs sit going forward has no authority to make decisions. It is there to ask questions, challenge over progress and advise.
The council is the “responsible body” and it would have to agree any significant changes through its own processes, and then separately with the government.
In this case, we don’t even know what the MP is proposing, or whether he has the support of his own party’s front bench at TDC this time around.
In the meantime, we are as confident as we can be that a ferry service will return to Ramsgate in the next year or so. The arrangements being put in place protect local taxpayers from financial risk because the council will not be operating the port itself.
Far from being “pie in the sky”, we believe this is the right mixed-use solution for the site and that it will be a key component in Ramsgate’s regeneration, along with the substantial investment in the harbour and elsewhere. A ferry service can once again generate critical funding to provide improved local services, as it did in the past.
Time will tell, but one thing is for sure. The moment the dock appears in view on the horizon after a long voyage is no time to try to change course – particularly without letting the captain know first.