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.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Dreamland - Offshore, Tax-Dodging, Hedgefund, Takeover?


One of my predictions for 2017 is that Cayman Island registered hedge fund, Arrowgrass Master Fund, is likely  to become the new operator of Margate’s Dreamland  Amusement Park.  
According to a document posted on the Companies House website on Xmas eve, Arrowgrass has loaned the current Dreamland park operator, Sands Heritage Limited (SHL) £1million. This latest development means that Arrowgrass has loaned SHL a total of £2.6million since May 2016.  The loans have been secured via legal charges on the 99 year leasehold agreement between Thanet Council and SHL for the Dreamland Amusement Park site, and legal charges on other properties leased by SHL, next to the Dreamland site (see table).

Dreamland Operator, SHL, has faced mounting financial problems over the past 12 months. In December 2015, just 6 months after the opening of the amusement park, it entered into a Company Voluntary Arrangement with its creditors. In May 2016 the company was forced into administration owing a staggering £14million to its creditors. Insolvency practitioners, Duff and Phelps, who are overseeing the administration of SHL reported to a creditors meeting on August 2016 that once creditor’s claims have been processed they will “take the necessary steps to put the Company (SHL)  into either Creditors' Voluntary Liquidation or into Compulsory Liquidation as they deem appropriate”.  Liquidation of SHL would almost certainly lead to Arrowgrass Master Fund exercising its rights,  under the terms of the legal charges it holds on the Dreamland site,   to become the new lease holder and de facto operator of the Amusement Park. Arrowgrass could then sell on the leases to a third party, or assign another organisation to operate Dreamland  on its behalf without any reference to Thanet Council.
The likely  takeover of  Dreamland by Arrowgrass Master Fund, makes an utter mockery of the original vision and ethos for the amusement park. Dreamland  was supposed to be a tourist-focused project, managed by a community charity, which would re-invest its profits into  the desperately needed regeneration of Margate. But due to the incompetence and maladministration of both Thanet Council and SHL, we now have an Amusement Park which is likely to be run by a greedy, tax-dodging, offshore hedge-fund, which is more interested in paying its fat-cat investors  handsome dividends instead of supporting the regeneration of  Margate.

What makes me furious about this sickening debacle is that any profits screwed out of Dreamland by Arrowgrass Master Fund and  its greedy investors, will  have been made on the back of a least at £20million  public money invested in the acquisition, restoration  and opening  of Dreamland.
There must be a public inquiry into this massively mismanaged project and those responsible must be named and shamed

Friday, 23 December 2016

Brett Aggregate. Time To Act.

A couple of weeks ago I exposed the fact that Brett Aggregates have been operating their  concrete batching plant at Ramsgate Port for 6 years without having had an environment impact assessment carried out. Longstanding council policies make it a requirement  that assessments of potentially polluting activities at the port must be carried out to ascertain whether they might be harmful or not. I have now written to the council asking what it intends to do about the unacceptable  situation with Brett's concrete batching plant. Here's a copy of my communication, which I also sent to Council Leader Chris Wells. I'll let you know what the Council says.


Dear Mr Waite
As the Director with responsibility for Ramsgate Port I would like to draw to your attention to serious irregularities with regards to the operation of the Brett Aggregate concrete batching plant at the port.
The batching plant commenced operation in 2010. In a letter written by former TDC planner, Doug Brown, to Brett Aggregates on 28th May 2010 (copy attached) it is stated that "Alex Stanmore of Bretts confirmed that The Council Harbour Master at the time would make a report to English Nature (now Natural England)  with regard to the batching plant proposal. The Harbourmaster, in an email dated 14th February 2008, confirmed to Alex Stanmore that "You have all the necessary permissions and information that you require from us" (Thanet Council). I would be grateful to know whether you have a copy of correspondence from the Harbourmaster confirming he would make the report for my records, this would give me confirmation of how environmental implications were addressed".
I have submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to Thanet Council, Natural England and Kent County Council requesting a copy of the Harbour Master's  report  about  the environmental impact of  Brett Aggregates Concrete Batching Plant and all three organisations have replied saying that they do not hold this information. This leads me to assume that contrary to the implications of Mr Brown's letter of  28th May 2010, the Harbour Master did not produced such a report.
I submitted a further FOI request to TDC asking whether the council held in its records any other reports or documentation on the environmental implications of the Brett Aggregates concrete batching plant at Ramsgate Port. I received a reply from TDC on 15 December which states that "We can find no record of any reports as referenced in your request and therefore we are unable to answer your questions any further."
At the time when the Brett Aggregates Concrete Batching Plant was established  2010 TDCs Local Plan included the following policies.  
 
1. (Policy EC9 Ramsgate New Port)  “all land-based facilities at the port should be subject to an “acceptable environmental assessment of the impact of the proposed development”.
2. (Policy EP5 Air Quality Monitoring)  “development proposals that might lead to ..a significant deterioration in local air quality resulting in unacceptable effects on human health, local amenity or the natural environment will require the submission of an air quality assessment
3. Policy EC8 Ramsgate Waterfront says “all proposals must ensure the integrity of the nature conservation interests within the adjacent Site of Special Scientific Interest, the Special Protection Area, the Special Area of Conversation and the RAMSAR site is maintained
These policies still remain place.
On the basis of my FOI requests I can only conclude therefore that the Brett Aggregate concrete batching plant  has been operating at Ramsgate Port for 6 years without having been subjected to the appropriate environmental impact assessments as are required by TDCs own policies. Bearing in mind the extremely sensitive nature of the  area in which the plant operates the lack of appropriate assessments is very worrying. 
As the responsible Director I request that you conduct an urgent investigation into how  it was possible for the environment assessment to have been overlooked, especially bearing in mind the policy context. I also request that you contact Brett as quickly as possible to ensure that they urgently commission, at their expense, the appropriate environmental impact assessments on their concrete batching plant at Ramsgate Port  as is required by TDC policy, and that the report (s) are produced by a suitably qualified professional. In the meantime,  I believe that Brett Aggregates concrete batching operations at the port  should be suspended until the results of the environmental impact assessments have been produced and cleared as safe/ low risk.
I look forward to hearing from you on this matter
Yours sincerely Ian Driver
 

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Criminal Polluters Southern Water Fined £2million

Congratulations to the Environment Agency for successfully prosecuting Southern Water for polluting Thanet’s  beaches with raw sewage in 2012. Congratulations to Judge Adele Williams who, at Maidstone Crown Court on 19th December,  fined Southern Water a record £2million for causing this major pollution incident which led to the closure of all of  Thanet’s beaches for almost a week,  costing  local businesses tens-of-thousands of pound in lost trade.

Sadly Southern Water is renowned as a serial polluter. Figures produced by the Environment Agency show that the company has one of the worst pollution records in the entire privatised water industry, prompting a High Court Judge to describe the company, in 2014,  as having a  persistent record of criminality and offending”.  Water industry regulator OFWAT have also identified Southern Water has having the highest rate of customer complaints for each of the past four years.  

I’d like to believe that a £2million fine would be a  wakeup call to Southern Water  to take greater care of our environment and provide improved customer services. But sadly I doubt it. According to its accounts for 2015-16 Southern Water made pre-tax profits of £119million which works out to be a wealth generation rate of £329,000 per day!  A fine of £2million pales into insignificance when compared against these astronomic earnings figures and in all probability  treated by Southern Water as a minor business overhead of little consequence.
 
If privatised water companies are to be genuinely held to account for polluting our environment then fines should much larger than the £2million record fine handed down at Maidstone on 19 December. I would suggest that somewhere in the region of £10 to £15 million would be much more appropriate and if the problems persist then the company concerned should be taken into public ownership and run by the state just like the water industry in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.







Monday, 19 December 2016

Dreamland, Sands Heritage, Secrecy & Lies


Last week a Thanet Council Internal Audit report into the acquisition, restoration and opening of  the Margate Dreamland Amusement Park confirmed what myself and many others had been saying for a long time – that this publically funded  £30million (estimated final phase1 cost including CPO compensation)  project has been atrociously  mismanaged by Thanet District Council (TDC) and that there should now be an independent public enquiry.  

This appalling example of maladministration, is the tip of a massive iceberg of  incompetence and maladministration  at Thanet Council which includes the Pleasurama development site which has blighted Ramsgate seafront for over 20 years; the live animal exports £5.1million  damages  scandal;  the TransEurpora Ferries secret debt deal which cost taxpayers £3.4million; the White Finger safety prosecution which seriously damaged the health of  more than 20 employees and which will cost the council dearly in industrial injury compensation payouts. Quite clearly Thanet Council is a basket case and its top brass are demonstrably unable to cope lurching from one crisis to another. As a lifelong socialist it pains me to admit it, but I am in full agreement with Thanet’s 2 Tory MPs, Sir Roger Gale and Craig MacKinlay when they say that TDC  should be placed in special measures and top management functions taken over by commissioners appointed by the  Government.
As much as it would please many  people in Thanet, placing TDC in special measures is not, sadly, the purpose of this post. I actually want to take a deeper look at the appointment, by TDC, of Sands Heritage Limited (SHL)  as the Dreamland Park operator in 2015 and explore whether this was a wise decision which, bearing in mind SHL’s insolvency and entry into administration,  it clearly wasn’t. In fact last week’s Internal Audit  report strongly suggests that the appointment of SHL might have been a mistake, warning that  fledgling companies with no track record or accounts, set up for a particular purpose carry a greater risk than is being acknowledged through the due diligence checks being undertaken by these multi-disciplinary groups of officers and members”.

But it isn’t just TDCs own internal audit team who have expressed concerns about SHL’s appointment as the Dreamland park operator. In April 2015, just 2 months before Dreamland opened. The Heritage Lottery Fund who had, by this time invested almost £6million in Dreamland, wrote  to Council Chief Executive Madeline Homer and the then Labour Council Leader, Iris Johnston, expressing their concerns that they had not been kept informed by TDC about the appointment of a park operator and that “despite repeated requests, we have not received any information outlining how this exercise (the appointment of a park operator) was handled and how the final selection of operator was made”.

The letter went on to say “At the recent site visit, we were surprised to find out that Sands Heritage Limited, who we understand has been selected by the Council to operate Dreamland, appeared ready to proceed with plans to relocate the learning space to a new location on the site, without fully consulting us. We also met a member of the Dreamland Trust's learning staff, who we found out was transferring to Sands Heritage Limited at the end of last month. The Trust has told us that a number of staff, including their former Director, have transferred over to this new organisation, but that this happened before the procurement of the new operator was concluded. We were also very surprised to hear that Sands Heritage Limited was in the process of creating a new charity, with the view to taking on the current role of the Dreamland Trust in this project.

I am sure you will understand our serious concerns over the current situation. As things stand, we cannot approve the procurement of Sands Heritage Limited without a clear explanation of how this process was conducted in open competition, and following the receipt of a number of expressions of interest. Sands Heritage Limited has clearly been closely connected with the project for a number of months now, as the only applicant in the first procurement exercise, and with a Chief Executive who was previously working for the Dreamland Trust. We have asked for this information a number of times, on the phone, by email and in meetings, but we have only received a scoring sheet with no back-up information, and the subsequent analysis of the chosen tender from an external company.

I remain concerned that this process may not have been conducted in an open and fair manner. Until we receive a full and acceptable report on this procurement, we cannot proceed with considering the proposed lease for the operation of the site.

Despite its careful wording, HLFs letter pulled no punches, clearly suggesting that it was concerned  by the probity  of TDCs operator selection process and worried about the transfer of the former Chief Executive of the Dreamland Trust, Eddie Kemsley, to the post of CEO of SHL’s Dreamland management team.

On 6th May 2015 Thanet Council provided HLF with a report outlining  the processes which led to the selection of  SHL as park operator. This process  required 2 attempts. The first attempt took place  in June 2014. It  resulted in just one applicant,  SHL, submitting a tender. TDC rightly decided to run a second procurement exercise in November 2014 which attracted 6 applicants including both SHL and the Dreamland Trust. I have been advised that a number of people/ organisations associated with the second round of tendering expressed  serious concerns about the  process, alleging that SHL may  have had unfair advantages over the other bidders. Thanet Council took these concerns seriously and commissioned an external legal firm Trowers and Hamlins to review the procurement process. Trowers and Hamlins appear  to have felt that there was something not quite right about the operator selection process because they  took the most unusual step of recommending to TDC that  SHL’s 2nd round tender submission of November 2014 should be discounted and that its  previous (round 1) tender submission of June 2014  be considered as the basis of their bid instead.

Since January 2016 I have been trying, through the Freedom of Information (FOI)  process to get hold of the Trowers and Hamlins legal advice to Thanet Council to find out exactly what concerns had been expressed about the Dreamland operator procurement process and what type of advantage, if any, SHL was claimed to have over its competitors and why SHL’s second tender submission to become park operator was withdrawn in favour of its first submission. I have a gut feeling that if this information is released it will be very unsavoury and likely to support and corroborate rumours and allegations of unfairness and impropriety in the Dreamland operator procurement processes.

This probably explains why Thanet Council has refused to release the information to me on the grounds that it is protected by legal privilege. I submitted an appeal against Thanet Council’s decision to the information Commissioner’s Office in April 2016 who, just last week, told me that it had  rejected my appeal and supports  Thanet Council’s  withholding of the information. However, in arriving at its decision the Information Commissioners Office  uncovered a crude effort by Thanet Council to lie to me. Apparently Thanet Council had secured a second legal opinion about the Dreamland operator procurement process, in addition to the Trowers and Hamlins advice and had failed, contrary to FOI regulations, to advise me of this fact. To have commissioned 2 expensive legal opinions on the processes used to appoint the Dreamland operator can only mean that there had been some very serious questions about the  integrity and fairness of the process  and Thanet residents need to know why. That’s why, in  the new year,  I will be submitting an appeal to the Information Tribunal in the hope that I can overturn TDCs and ICOs refusal to let me have the legal advice.

Although this advice may be privileged there is an overwhelmingly  powerful  public interest argument to have this exemption from public release lifted. This is a project which will, on final reckoning,  have cost the public at least £30million for phase 1, with its operator entering administration owing £14million in less than a year of the park opening. There is now a charge on SHL’s Dreamland park leasehold agreement  which could easily mean that a tax-avoiding, offshore, Cayman Island registered, hedge fund, which is run by mates of SHL’s  directors, could take over the running of Dreamland. To add insult to a very serious injury it now appears that the failed, discredited and insolvent   park operator may have been appointed by an allegedly flawed and unfair  procurement process overseen by a demonstrably incompetent and totally mismanaged excuse for local authority. Sir Roger and Craig MacKinlay are right –  there should be a full independent  public inquiry into Dreamland and the  basket case Thanet Council should be placed in special measures with its management  taken over by Government appointed  external commissioners.  

Friday, 16 December 2016

Ramsgate Port Concrete Plant Breaches Council Policies

Press release -


Former Thanet Councillor, Ian Driver, claims that the Brett Aggregates Concrete Batching Plant at Ramsgate Port  has been operating in breach of Thanet Council (TDC) polices for over 6 years.

Opened in 2010  the plant should,  according to TDC’s  planning policies, have had a comprehensive environmental impact assessment carried out on it  to ensure that it would not have any adverse effects upon air quality and the nearby nationally and internationally protected marine areas.

TDC’s planning policies state that
1. (Policy EC9 Ramsgate New Port)  all land-based facilities at the port should be subject to an “acceptable environmental assessment of the impact of the proposed development”.
2. (Policy EP5 Air Quality Monitoring)  development proposals that might lead to ..a significant deterioration in local air quality resulting in unacceptable effects on human health, local amenity or the natural environment will require the submission of an air quality assessment
3. Policy EC8 Ramsgate Waterfront says all proposals must ensure the integrity of the nature conservation interests within the adjacent Site of Special Scientific Interest, the Special Protection Area, the Special Area of Conversation and the RAMSAR site is maintained”.

It was suggested in a letter from a council planning officer in 2010 that the Ramsgate Port Habourmaster had prepared a report for English Nature (now Natural England) in 2008 about the environmental impact of Brett’s proposed concrete batching planet at the port. But a Freedom of Information (FOI)  requests submitted to Thanet Council, Kent County Council, and Natural England by Ian Driver, revealed that the report cannot be located and probably never existed.

In a follow up FOI to Thanet Council Driver asked if the council holds in its records any reports produced during before, or after  2010,  which address the council’s planning  policy requirements  in relation to the Brett concrete production plant at the port. Or if the council holds any other information or reports on the environmental impact of the Brett concrete batching plant at Ramsgate Port. Thanet Council replied to Driver on 15 December saying that  We can find no record of any reports as referenced in your request”.

Said Driver “Its utterly astonishing that a potentially polluting concrete batching plant has been allowed to operate in an environmentally sensitive area of Ramsgate’s seafront for more than 6 years without having first being subject to a robust  impact assessment, as is required by TDCs own polices. I have written to the Leader of the Council, Chris Wells, asking for an investigation into this serious failure, and for  Brett’s to be ordered to commission, as quickly as possible,  an independent environmental impact assessment carried out by a properly qualified person.  Brett’s as the plant operator, should pay for this report and copies must d be provided to TDC, KCC and Natural England so that the situation at the port can be properly assessed. If the plant is found to present any dangers or unacceptable risks it should be closed down immediately”.

He added “Hundreds of  Ramsgate residents have turned up to two packed public meetings to express their strong opposition to  Brett’s proposals  to expand its operations at the Port to include a large aggregate washing and  crushing plant. It now turns out that Brett’s existing concrete production operation has not been subject to an environmental assessment and does not comply with TDC planning policies”.

“A concrete plant operating extremely close to a busy town is not a good idea as the risk of air pollution is greatly increased and air pollution  can have a devastating impact upon peoples’ health. Locating a concrete plant near to nationally and internationally protected marine area also presents a  serious risk to Ramsgate’s natural environment.  Personally,  I believe that the Council should terminate its lease with Brett, but at the very least there is an urgent need for an environment impact assessment to be carried out quickly”.  

Monday, 12 December 2016

Margate Dreamland Overspend. Public Inquiry Not Internal Whitewash

On Tuesday evening (13th December) TDCs Overview and Scrutiny Panel will be discussing a report which identifies widespread managerial incompetence as a cause of the flagship Margate Dreamland project overspending by an astronomic £2,255,500. Produced by TDCs internal auditors the report singles out poor record keeping, weaknesses in project management, risk evaluation, and  financial management, as being the causes  of delays, disorganisation, and unforeseen and rising costs which led to the massive overspend.  The report also identifies high staff turnover leading to increased pressure of work in team responsible for delivering the Dreamland project, as another contributory factor which resulted in the major overspend.

The report covers Phase 1 of the Dreamland project,  up until shortly after the opening of the  Dreamland Amusement Park  in  mid- 2015. It also raises serious questions about how Thanet Council selected the Dreamland Park operator, Sands Heritage Limited, stating  that  “fledgling companies with no track record or accounts, set up for a particular purpose carry a greater risk than is being acknowledged through the due diligence checks being undertaken by these multi-disciplinary groups of officers and members”. Sands Heritage is now in administration owing it creditors over £14million and has a charge on its (( year lease agreement with Thanet Council   by an offshore, Cayman Island’s registered hedge fund.

Although I welcome this report it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Serious mistakes have been made by politicians and council bosses and the overspends and losses to the taxpayers will eventually be much, much  greater than the reported £2.25 million, especially when the outstanding compulsory purchase compensation claim is settled with the  former owners. I’m also concerned that this report has been an internal production  which means that the council was investigating itself. Self-investigation of major public sector incompetence and failure, such as this are seldom objective and truthful and often result  in cover ups, allowing senior managers and politicians to avoid responsibility for actions.

This is why there should be an independent public inquiry into what went wrong at Dreamland, who was responsible for it and what lessons can be learned.
 
 
 

 

 

 

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Time to Sort the Port

About 150 people attended a public meeting at the Oddfellows Hall last Thursday  to hear the latest news on Brett Aggregate’s proposals to construct a massive aggregate washing and crushing plant at the port of Ramsgate. Thankfully, following the previous public meeting in October, over 80 people had submitted letters of objection to Natural England and  Brett’s had been forced to withdraw their plans. But be warned this is only a temporary withdrawal. Many people, myself included, expect Brett to come back with new proposals fairly soon.

In fact according to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I submitted to Thanet Council (TDC), Brett’s Head of Land and Planning, John Bunnett, who was formerly the Deputy Chief Executive of TDC, has been in touch with the council by e-mail and phone on several occasions since Brett  withdrew its  proposals. These communications indicate that Brett is determined to use its  power and influence to ensure it  gets what it  wants at Ramsgate Port, which is hardly surprising because the stakes are high. Very high indeed for both Brett and the people of Ramsgate and that’s what’s what I want to talk about in this article.

Let’s begin with some  history. In July 2014 TDC’s Labour controlled cabinet, which included the then Ramsgate Labour Councillors David and Elizabeth Green, Richard Nicholson Rick Everitt and Mike Harrison, approved the Ramsgate Maritime Plan. The Plan states that Ramsgate “port operates an aggregates facility in partnership with Brett Aggregates” and “There is scope to handle greater volumes (of aggregate) which the commercial port will exploit within the region…we will scope opportunities to grow this business”.  There was no public consultation on this plan!  With the approval of TDC’s ruling Labour Cabinet, it was developed in secret behind closed doors and only specially selected organisations were invited to participate in the discussions which led to the production of  a plan which, in my view,  has  no democratic legitimacy.

Shortly after the publication of the Maritime Plan the O’Regan Group announced, in December 2014, that it was seeking permission to develop concrete block manufacturing and waste wood re-processing operations at Ramsgate Port. Following 2 well-attended open meetings and a massive public outcry against the environmental impact of  O’Regan’s  proposals and the damage they could  cause to Ramsgate’s tourist economy, Thanet’s ruling Labour Group announced, to everyone’s relief, that it would not be  supporting the company’s  plans and would only support environmentally sustainable, maritime based, commercial use of Ramsgate port”.

But despite these welcome re-assurances it has now emerged  that  Thanet’s then ruling Labour group, continued to hypocritically  and deceitfully  permit  high-level discussions about potentially environmentally damaging developments at the port to continue;  but with Brett instead of  O’Regan.  According to my FOI request  2 meetings between TDC and Brett Aggregates took place whilst Labour was still running the council and at precisely the same time that the O’Regan issue was making  headlines in the local press. One of the meetings took place  on 17 December 2014; the other on 13 March  2015. The FOI says that the meetings discussed the expansion of Brett’s operations at the Port and the possibility of improving the berths in order that Brett could use much larger ships to land bigger quantities of aggregate. Such expansion would, of course, significantly elevate pollution  risks to the protected marine areas near to the port and noise and atmospheric pollution for local residents and visitors as well.

But before Labour could be rumbled for cynically misleading people  with their lying and deceitful promise of an “environmentally sustainable, maritime based, commercial use of Ramsgate port”  the 2015 general and council elections intervened. During the election campaign UKIP’s Parliamentary Candidate Nigel Farage made a big issue of the O’Regan proposals for Ramsgate Port saying to the press   The latest potential development of a construction base at the Port of Ramsgate has already been strongly opposed at a public meeting and has more than 500 signatures from dissatisfied residents since a petition was launched on Friday. He added: “To that idea I simply say - yuck. An eyesore would not bring interest back to the area”.  UKIP’s council candidates in Ramsgate also made great play of the O’Regan plans, publically stating their opposition to a damaging industrialization of the port.
Yet after virtually annihilating Labour at the polls and taking control of TDC in May 2015, UKIP hypocritically reneged upon their promises to protect Ramsgate Port from inappropriate development. Instead they continued to implement Labour’s massively unpopular and discredited Maritime Plan. In the 12 month period from May 2015 to May 2016 two meetings between Brett Aggregates and TDC were held. As before, the meetings discussed the expansion of Brett’s operations at the Port and the upgrading of the berths to accommodate larger aggregate ships. But it didn’t stop there!

UKIP council leader, Chris Wells,  supported by Ramsgate Eastcliff  UKIP councillor  and Cabinet member with responsibility for the Port,  Hunter Stummer-Schmertzing, championed  TDCs application for £4million Government funding to  support Brett’s plans to expand its operations at the port, by improving the berths and making them accessible to larger ships  Although this bid  failed,  Wells and Stummer-Schmertzing were undeterred and instead used £700,000 of TDCs incredibly tight budget to overhaul and repair berths 3, 4 and 5 and to dredge the port in preparation for larger ships. These works began this autumn and are still continuing.  The pretext for spending almost  £1million the council can ill-afford, was stated as being “to ensure that the berth is operational in readiness for new cross channel ferry opportunities”. But like Labour before them this is deceitful and misleading smoke-screen which conceals the real truth behind the flurry of activity at the port.

It’s been almost 4 years since the last cross-channel ferry operator, TransEuropa, plied its trade from Ramsgate. They went bust in spectacular  fashion in April 2013 owing TDC, as I publically exposed at the time, a massive £3.4million in unpaid fees and charges which had been waived by a  top-secret  deal approved by the council’s ruling Labour Group and the Tories before them. Since then not a single bona-fide ferry operator has come forward with a serious offer to TDC about running a cross-channel ferry service from Ramsgate. For a report to go to a Council meeting , just two weeks ago,  asking for a seriously cash-strapped council to stump up  £700,000 it hasn’t got on the speculative possibility that it might just  attract “new cross channel ferry opportunities” is, to put it bluntly,  taking the piss. The truth is that a cross-channel ferry service is most unlikely to  ever return to Ramsgate, which begs the question what is the real purpose of  the “urgent” works at the port which, according to a report  presented to Council,  “must be completed before next spring”. Well I believe that the answer is to be found in  Dover rather  than a wet dream about the return of  P&O, Sealink, or Stenna to Ramsgate.
As you may have heard, Dover Harbour Board (DHB) is beginning, next year,  a   £200million, 3 year construction project,  to massively expand its capacity. As part of these plans DHB intends to secure much of the required construction material by dredging 2.5 million cubic metres of aggregate from the Goodwin Sands.

Despite major public opposition to the dredging on the grounds of the huge  environmental and archaeological damage it will cause;  and ignoring an 11,000 signature petition, DHB submitted an application for a licence to dredge the Goodwins to the Government’s Marine Management Organisation in May 2016. Public consultation on DHBs plans closed on 16 November  2016 and the MMO is expected to approve the licence application before Xmas.
Clearly, Brett’s proposals to hugely expand the scale and range of their activities at Ramsgate Port was timed to coincide with the massively lucrative financial opportunities which will be provided by a 3-year 24/7 aggregate dredging and processing programme. Having a large aggregate processing capacity at a port less than 20 miles from Dover would place Brett in a prime position to become DHB’s contractor of choice. Brett, through its marine aggregate division, also has access to modern dredging vessels. But the clincher in exposing Wells and Stummer-Schmertzing’s devious intentions, is that according to “inside information” I have received TDC and DHB have held a number of secret meetings to discuss using Ramsgate Port as an ancillary support site to facilitate the Goodwin Sands dredging programme.

So there we have it! Just like Labour before them,  Thanet’s UKIP leadership is deliberately misleading and  deceiving residents about its plans for Ramsgate Port. Just like Labour they are determined, despite powerful public opposition, to bulldoze through a massive industrialisation of the port, irrespective of the impact that this would have on Ramsgate’s environment and the local economy.

The noise, the dust, the huge increase in large vehicles transporting processed aggregate from Ramsgate to Dover would greatly increase pollution risks to the  protected marine areas near to the port and to Ramsgate’s residents and visitors. A large noisy and dirty aggregate processing plant located on Ramsgate’s seafront would also seriously damage the development of the town’s tourist economy. Just last week an independent report commissioned by Visit Kent estimated that visitor numbers to Thanet had grown last year to over 4 million people and that the district’s visitor economy was worth a staggering £293million per year and provided over 7,000 jobs. Surely it would be a mistake of monumental proportions for the UKIP-led council to support a short-term 3year, polluting, industrial development at the port, which would threaten the growth tourism and would destroy many more jobs than it would create?
But thankfully more and more and more people are now beginning to see the light and to recognise that Ramsgate’s economic future is aligned more with  tourism  and sustainable modern technologies, than an old fashioned industrialised port which has already demonstrated that it is an uncompetitive loss maker which haemorrhages £millons  every year.   Ramsgate MP, Craig MacKinlay is now calling for a review of the port’s long term future and its redevelopment as a leisure based modern marina. Something I have long  been arguing for. Interestingly a number of Ramsgate  UKIP councillors have also begun to speak out against their Leader Chris Wells’  insistence on following Labour’s discredited and disgraceful port industrialisation policy. Just a couple of weeks ago UKIP’s  Ramsgate Central Harbour councillor, Beverly Martin publically supported leisure use of the port. On the evening of last week’s public about Brett’s plans for the port, UKIP’s Northwood Councillor, Lynda Piper addressed TDCs Cabinet saying that  There seems to be a fundamental difference between the aspirations of the people of Ramsgate and the stated mission of the District Council, regarding the future development of the sea port and thus the town”. And how right she is!

There were packed public meetings and a massive public outcry 2 years ago when O’Regan’s tried to industrialise the port. There have been packed public meetings and a rapidly developing mood of anger now that Brett are trying to do  the same thing. But this time it’s different. There is now a strong and powerful cross-party and non-party political unity beginning to emergence and it’s time to for Council listen to the people and the people don’t want Brett at their port!
 
Here's the film of last week's the meeting