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DDC facing serious financial hardship after DEFRA withdraw funding for food checks at Port of Dover

Members of a Kent district council warn the authority is at risk of bankruptcy following the withdrawal of £3m in funding to carry out essential checks at the Port of Dover.

Food coming into the country at the port - one of the UK’s busiest - has to be checked, in particular illicit pork products which could pose the risk of containing African Swine Fever (ASF).

Important checks are carried out at the Port of Dover on imported foods
Important checks are carried out at the Port of Dover on imported foods

Dover District Council (DDC) acts as the Port Health Authority, meaning it is responsible for the monitoring of food imports.

Extra checks on pork products have been funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), however the department is set to scrap all the funding DDC gets for it.

A DDC report, published ahead of next week’s cabinet meeting, reads: “DEFRA is withdrawing 66% (£2m out of £3.2m) of Port Health Authority funding from Dover in 2024/25 and the remaining 33% (£1.2m) in 2025/26.

“Over 90% of all African Swine Fever (ASF) risk related pork trade arrives via Dover.

“Despite vague DEFRA assurances, the failure to properly resource the port health function poses a critical and irresponsible bio-security threat to the UK pork industry and the UK food chain, primarily through exposure to ASF from illicit and uncontrolled insanitary pork imports which are coming into the country through the Port of Dover at 1–2 tonnes per day.”

As a result of the funding cut, it means DDC now faces spending almost half of its council tax income on the bio-security checks by the 2025/26 financial year, which will be “paid for by the residents of the district, to protect the UK.”

DDC deputy leader Jamie Pout. Picture: DDC
DDC deputy leader Jamie Pout. Picture: DDC

The cabinet report details that this will “severely deplete the council’s limited reserves and greatly increases the risk” of the council’s finance chiefs having to issue a “section 114 notice” - effectively declaring bankruptcy.

The report reads: "If the DEFRA funding is not restored, or severe corrective action is not taken to reduce expenditure on services, the council’s position could become untenable and trigger a s114 report."

Cllr Kevin Mills, leader of DDC said: “DEFRA is backing Dover District residents into a corner, expecting them to pick up the tab for vital national bio-security checks.

“The Dover Port Health Authority (DPHA) has clearly demonstrated its expertise, for example, seizing over 65 tonnes of illegal pork products since September 2022.

“Expecting local residents to fund this national service through their Council Tax is unacceptable.

“If these proposals remain unchanged we will have no option but to scale back the biosecurity of the nation to protect local services for local taxpayers.”

Deputy leader of DDC, Jamie Pout (Lab) said: “With some hard work and sensible fiscal management we’ve balanced our books - except for government departments shafting us.

“We have to make decisions on what we know now, and it’s fair to say should we not receive adequate funding from DEFRA we will have to make serious decisions about port health services in this district.

“It’s not right that local taxpayers should fund this but we will continue to provide what we see is a project of national importance.”

Cabinet member for finance and the environment Cllr Susan Beer (Lab), added: “This is having a major impact on our financial situation.

“DDC has been working very hard to keep an even budget, but has failed this year because of outside influences - namely DEFRA, and it’s going to cause a major hole in our finances.”

Local council budgets have to be balanced by law, but they also have many legal responsibilities they must meet and spend money on.

DDC cabinet member Cllr Susan Beer. Picture: DDC
DDC cabinet member Cllr Susan Beer. Picture: DDC

When a council’s chief finance officer does not see any way the council can meet its legal responsibilities and set a balanced budget, they must issue a notice under Section 114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, which essentially declares the authority bankrupt.

Bankrupt councils are practically put into administration, with senior civil servants, officials from other local authorities and private sector experts taking the reins.

The authority says that maintaining the food checks “will take circa 33% of all DDC Council Tax income in 2024/25 and would increase to 47% in 2025/26, paid for by the residents of the district, to protect the UK”.

A spokesperson for DEFRA said: “In 2022 Defra provided a temporary financial support package to local authorities and port health authorities, which ends in June 2024.

“Part of this package enabled port health authorities to support Border Force with enforcing the temporary measures on pork products from the European Union designed to address the risks from African Swine Fever.

“We recognise the strategic importance of the Port of Dover and are continuing to work with the port authority on future support options.”

Natalie Elphicke, MP for Dover and Deal, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “The Government have asked Dover Port Health Authority to carry out border checks at the port of Dover and Coquelles in France.

“Clearly all required border control checks need to be properly funded and I have met with the Chancellor recently to underline the importance of this.”

DDC is set to decide on its budget, including making up the missing DEFRA money, at the cabinet meeting on Monday, February 5.

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