Concern raised over company awarded no-deal Brexit ferry contract

Concerns have been raised over the readiness of a British firm contracted by the government to run extra ferries in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Seaborne Freight was awarded a £13.8m contract this week to run a freight service between Ramsgate and Ostend.

The firm has never run a ferry service and a local councillor said it would be impossible to launch before Brexit.

The government said it had awarded the contract in “the full knowledge that Seaborne is a new shipping provider”.

The Department for Transport said that “the extra capacity and vessels would be provided as part of its first services”.

“As with all contracts, we carefully vetted the company’s commercial, technical and financial position in detail before making the award,” it added.

Conservative Kent county councillor Paul Messenger said it was impossible for the government to have carried out sufficient checks on the firm.

“It has no ships and no trading history so how can due diligence be done?” he asked.

Mr Messenger said he didn’t believe that it was possible to set up a new ferry service between Ramsgate and Ostend by 29 March – the date when the UK is due to leave the European Union.

The narrow berths for ships at the Port of Ramsgate mean there are only a few suitable commercial vessels, most of which are currently already in service, he said.

Ferry services have not operated from Ramsgate Port since 2013 after cross-channel operator TransEuropa collapsed, owing around £3.3m to Thanet District Council.

Mr Messenger said he was “perplexed” at the choice of Seaborne Freight to run the service.

“Why choose a company that never moved a single truck in their entire history and give them £14m. I don’t understand the logic of that,” he said.

But Seaborne Freight, which was formed less than two years ago to revive the Ramsgate-Ostend line, insisted it will launch its freight service between Ramsgate and Ostend before 29 March.

‘Ready to commence’

Chief executive Ben Sharp said the firm had been founded by “seasoned shipping veterans”.

Mr Sharp declined to give details on which ships it planned to use for the service, saying the information was commercially sensitive.

But he said dredging in Ramsgate Port would start early next week in preparation for the freight service.

“We will be ready to commence operations in March as planned,” he said.

Easing congestion

The government has also awarded additional, much larger ferry contracts to French company Brittany Ferries and Danish shipping firm DFDS, worth £46.6m and £47.3m respectively.

The new contracts are part of the government’s contingency planning, which aims to ease the potential for severe congestion at main port Dover if the UK leaves the European Union without a deal.

The department has warned that increased border checks by EU countries in the case of a no-deal Brexit could “cause delivery of critical goods to be delayed”, and “significant wider disruption to the UK economy and to the road network in Kent”.

The Department for Transport says the new contracts will provide “significant extra capacity” to UK ports in the event of a no-deal Brexit,

The three firms chosen will retain a portion of their award even if their services are no longer needed, due to a deal being reached with Brussels.

However, in that event, the government would then seek to sell the extra capacity back to the market.