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Dredging to begin at Ramsgate Port as Transport Secretary Chris Grayling defends handing Seaborne Freight Brexit contract

By Katie Davis

Dredging is to begin at Ramsgate port this week, it has been confirmed.

It comes as part of preparations to reinstate ferry services at the site, with a £13.8million contract handed to Seaborne Freight by the government.

This morning, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has defended the decision to hand the contract to the company, which has never run a crossing, in a bid to provide extra ferry capacity in the event of a no deal Brexit on March 29.

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Ramsgate port (6286030)
Ramsgate port (6286030)

Seaborne Freight proposes to run a route from Ramsgate to Ostend, and is one of three companies handed contracts worth more than £100 million in total in what has been called "a situation of extreme urgency" by the government.

Speaking on the Today Programme, Mr Grayling said: "I make no apologies for supporting a new British business. The reality is, it's a tightly drawn up contract that requires them to deliver, but I don't think there is anything wrong with government supporting small business.

"It's a new start up business. Government supporting new British business - there's nothing wrong with that."

Thanet District Council has today confirmed that dredging is due to start this week.

The authority has been working to re-establish ferry services at the port since crossing ceased in 2013 after the collapse of TransEuropa.

A TDC spokesman said: "The council has been keen to re-establish a ferry service since before the vote to leave the EU.

"We recognise that Ramsgate could play a role in supporting post-Brexit resilience by offering an alternative route for some cross-Channel traffic, to ensure at least some movement of goods should there be significant delays in Dover."

As part of its work, the council reviewed the capability of the port to provide capacity to support Brexit position which, with an investment of £26million, includes the potential for up to 24 sailings a day.

The council says this would create capacity to divert 3,360 lorry movements per day from Operation Brock from the M20 and M26 significantly reducing pressure from the Port of Dover during peak traffic flows.

The spokesman added: "This would be especially beneficial to the ‘Just in Time’ production processes and logistics, for example the chilled food sector.

"This information has been shared with Government. The Government has not responded to the council on that basis but we are aware that the Government is having discussions with other parties regarding contingency arrangements."

Ramsgate port is the second closest UK port to the continent and is one of the largest municipally-owned commercial ports.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling (6287300)
Transport secretary Chris Grayling (6287300)

The council says it is in talks with potential operator Seaborne Freight.

It added: "The requirement for cross channel freight volume is expected to increase steadily beyond Brexit and the Port of Ramsgate can play a significant part in providing additional capacity.

"This would give increased resilience to the European logistics market and support the flow of traffic across the South East of England especially the Thames Corridor and would link into the third Thames crossing, diverting traffic east rather than south to Dover and the Channel Tunnel."

The contract from the government to Seaborne Freight states that services must be operational by March 29.

A contract award notice says: "The Department for Transport has awarded a contract to Seaborne Freight (UK) Ltd for the supply of additional freight capacity on ferry services between England and Belgium in order to minimise the potential disruption of trade across the Short Straits in the event that the UK leaves the EU without an agreement.

"The ferry services under the contracts are to be operational by March 29."

The notice cites "extreme urgency" as the reason for not allowing other companies to compete for a tender.

“If the government is making a £13.8million local handout, surely some cash should have been given to the hospital?" Cllr Barry Lewis

It states: "A situation of extreme urgency exists in the context of UK-EU roll-on-roll-off ferry capacity by virtue of the UK leaving the EU on March 29 and the prospect that this exit may be on a no-deal basis.

"This extreme urgency arises from a combination of events, and the anticipated response to those events of a range of entities, including: 1) The possibility of severe congestion at and around UK ports from March 29, caused by increased border checks by European Union Member States, and consequently a significant reduction in capacity at ports on the short straits. It is anticipated that this could, without further intervention to secure additional ferry capacity, cause delivery of critical goods to be delayed and cause significant wider disruption to the UK economy and to the road network in Kent;

"2) The significant lead times that are required to source additional ferry capacity which require action to be taken several months in advance of the capacity being required to be delivered and

"3) Unexpected and unforeseeable limitations on the extent to which the market has to date been able to respond to these circumstances by putting in place contingency plans to deal with this scenario."

Kent County Councillor Barry Lewis has spoken of his concerns following the deal.

He said: “I’m very worried about the consequences for taxpayers, as there’s no news about who will pay for the upgrading of the port and the staffing levels, given that there has been no due diligence on the project.

“If the government is making a £13.8million local handout, surely some cash should have been given to the hospital?

“There is no sight of any ships within the company and I would like to know where the money will be spent and who will pay for dredging, staffing and security such as fencing?

“How much will this end up costing Thanet residents?”

Kevin Root, Seaborne Freight's ports manager, confirmed that the dredging was being paid for by the firm.

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