My KCC Election Manifesto & Video

Thursday, 29 December 2016

A Proper Debate on Ramsgate Port's Future

Just like Manston Airport, Ramsgate Port is finished. According to official Thanet Council (TDC) figures, the port lost £7.6 million over the past 5 years. That’s the equivalent of £55 for every man, woman and child living in Thanet. Just like Manston, it makes no sense  to continue throwing good money after bad to prop up an operation which doesn’t have a future. And just like Manston we must now begin to develop new ideas about alternative uses for the port which will help to regenerate the economy, create new jobs and business opportunities and protect Ramsgate’s unique environmental heritage.

But there’s a massive obstacle which prevents the development of new thinking and ideas for the port. That obstacle is TDC. Sadly most of TDCs politicians, irrespective of party affiliation, and many of the senior officers have an appalling track record of managing the major issues facing the council. Just look at their management of  Pleasurama,  Dreamland and the White Finger health and safety scandal. Ramsgate Port is no different. Politicians and officers involved in managing and drawing up plans  for the port over the past 4 years have demonstrated that they are economically illiterate, short-term thinkers,  who’s proposals are environmentally and financially damaging. They have also managed Ramsgate Port in a profoundly undemocratic and secretive way so as to avoid public debate and discussion. Unless we get rid of these incompetent dead weights, opportunities  for the port to become a driving force in Ramsgate’s regeneration will be missed  and public money, we can ill-afford to lose,  will continue to be wasted on a failing, unsustainable, service. But it doesn’t have to be like this and I hope that this post will provoke some discussion about the future Ramsgate Port and seafront.

Economic Illiteracy. It’s almost four years since TransEuropa Ferries went bust owing TDC a staggering  £3.4million in unpaid fees and charges. The fact that another ferry operator has not, in this time,  come forward to provide  a new cross channel service suggest to me that the industry doesn’t see   Ramsgate as a good investment  opportunity. The  £200 million expansion of nearby Dover Harbour coupled with the opening of the new London Gateway Freight Terminal and  logistics park also means that Ramsgate faces an almost impossible struggle to attract customers from its large, state of the art, competitors who  are closer to major markets, better connected, and more accessible than our port. 

Instead of factoring these important economic issues into a sensible, evidence based, business plan for Ramsgate Port, TDC’s senior managers and politicians have buried their heads in the sand. The 2014 Ramsgate Maritime Plan, and all  subsequent reports and pronouncements about the port, fail to take into account of  the tremendous competitive pressures it faces. Ignoring this economic reality has led TDC to develop unrealistic plans for Ramsgate port based more  on wishful thinking than on facts. This is why the council’s 2014 Maritime Plan stupidly concludes, in defiance of overwhelming  evidence to the contrary, that TDC must “pursue a Ro-Ro ferry strategy”. This is why,  just last month, councillors were happy  to approve, without criticism,  almost £1million on repairs and improvements to the berths at Ramsgate port in the misguided  hope that this investment might possibly attract new ferry operators in 2017. This is why TDC believes that it’s perfectly acceptable to waste £7.6million of council tax payers money propping up a port which is almost dead.
What we urgently need is a well-researched, evidence based, analysis of the maritime ferry and freight industry and how this impacts upon Ramsgate Port. Something akin to the Aviva report which TDC commissioned, earlier this year, into Manston Airport. Armed with facts rather the self-delusional, wishful thinking,  it would then be possible to begin developing a realistic business plan for port.

Short Term Thinking  It’s not just TDCs  flawed ferry fixation which prevents the development of a sensible  forward looking business plan for Ramsgate port,  but also  its drive to fill the port with industries which are transitory or in terminal decline, and which fail to provide a long-term sustainable future for this important seafront facility. Take the GEFCO car transportation operation  as an example. This is a short-term 18 month deal which works on very tight margins and depends upon favourable exchange rates. With increasing currency instability and Brexit looming I can’t see the GEFCO deal surviving for much longer. And in any event the income received from GEFCO does not offset the massive year on year losses racked up by the port.
Next we have the aggregates trade. The 2014 Maritime Plan sates that “There is scope to handle greater volumes (of aggregate) which the commercial port will exploit”. True to its word this is exactly what the council is doing. In the past few months TDC has  been in discussions with Brett Aggregates about massively expanding their operation at the port to include an aggregate washing and crushing plant at the port and improving the berths to allow access for  much larger aggregate ships. But once again this a short term operation which is linked to the  processing of  millions of tons of aggregate which will be used during the forthcoming 3 year Dover Harbour expansion programme.  Furthermore the marine dredged aggregate business is a business which is in  decline. Governments across the world are now beginning to impose tight restrictions on seabed aggregate dredging, focusing instead on developing aggregate re-cycling and re-use in construction. Even Kent County Council’s Minerals and Waste Local Plan is now placing a greater emphasis on the construction industry recycling and re-using aggregates.

Instead of focusing on attracting short-term, transitory industries to the port, TDC should  be exploring possibilities for encouraging long-term, sustainable, industries such as windfarm support  and development, boat building and repair and maintaining and growing the traditional fishing fleet at the port.  

Damaging Proposals TDCs proposals for Ramsgate Port are not just economically illiterate and short-term, but they are also extremely damaging. Bringing back  ferries and the massive rise in the number of HGV vehicles using the port would have a catastrophic impact upon air quality in and around Ramsgate which will  directly affect the health of residents. Allowing the development of a large scale aggregate processing facility at the port will also impact upon air quality and is likely to be the cause of significant noise nuisance as well. Aggregate processing close to nationally and internationally protected marine and coastal sites, such as those at Ramsgate, will hugely increase the risk of these sites being polluted
But it’s not just the environmental damage I’m worried about. It’s the impact that a heavily industrialised ferry port would have upon Thanet and Ramsgate’s tourist economy. According to research commissioned by Visit Kent earlier this year, Thanet’s visitor economy is reviving and growing. In 2015 tourism was estimated to have earned a massive £293 million for Thanet and created over 7,000 jobs. To blight the jewel of Ramsgate’s tourist crown – the seafront – by permitting the development of a dirty, noisy and polluting port, would seriously damage tourism in Ramsgate and would destroy more jobs and business  opportunities than would ever be created by a heavily industrialised port.

Any plan for the future of  Ramsgate port must therefore carefully balance the needs of Thanet’s tourist industry with commercial and industrial activities in around the port and should seek to minimise, rather than intensify, any conflicts between the two. I personally believe that the port should become much more focused on becoming leisure based with a range of light, non-polluting industry taking place as well.   

Democracy & Secrecy The management of Ramsgate Port is shrouded in secrecy. The development of the 2014 Maritime Plan was carried out behind closed doors with no public consultation. TDC kept its unsuccessful efforts to secure £4million in Government grants to industrialise the port secret from the public and most of its democratically elected councillors so at to avoid public scrutiny and debate. TDC and Ramsgate Town Council both failed to consult the public about KCCs 2014 Mineral and Waste Plan proposals, which would have provided an ideal  opportunity for local people to have raised their concerns about the industrialisation of the port.  
Compare this to Whitstable where the harbour has been managed by a special board composed of councillors elected by the people of Whitstable  and  members of the public since 2003. The board meets in public every 4-6 weeks. Reports on the financial performance and development of the harbour and its compliance with the relevant rules and regulations  are presented to every meeting and the public are allowed to questions. The Whitstable Harbour Board also produces a strategic plan every 3 years. In the summer of 2016 the board conducted a tri-annual review of its strategic plan which included 5 well attended public meetings and an online consultation.

Any discussion about the future of Ramsgate Port must include a discussion about devolving the management of the port and the Royal Harbour to a locally-based board which is open, transparent and accountable to the people of Ramsgate. Something similar to the Whitstable Harbour Board would my preferred option.
So there you have it! My thoughts on what a proper debate on the Ramsgate port should look like – economically informed, long-term and sustainable, in balance with and supporting the visitor economy, environmentally sensitive, open and transparent, and  with a strong democratically accountable structure for the port’s future management. I believe that this is the only way the community will be able to develop a successful plan for the future of Ramsgate Port. I sincerely hope that TDC, its politicians and officers will begin to see it this way too.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for a sobering and comprehensive article. n

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  2. Who is the Harbourmaster and why have Wells and Canute Hunter SS not resigned over Brett?

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  3. Happy New Year Ian. This year the Manston DCO will unravel. Ramsgate Harbour, Pleasurama and Dreamland will probably remain as hardy perennial cockups.

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