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 pollutedBut 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.