On the 150th anniversary of the first cross-Channel ferry journey from Newhaven to Dieppe, the future looks bleak for the Sussex port. Officials in France look set to cancel millions of euros of public subsidy, leaving the harbour at risk of financial ruin. Bill Gardner reports on the stormy outlook for the county’s most important sea link.
Newhaven Port could close with the loss of more than 500 jobs if French taxpayers refuse to foot the bill for the ferry crossing to Dieppe.
Officials across the Channel look set to pull the plug on a yearly, taxpayer-funded subsidy which currently keeps the route in business.
Harbour bosses said the loss of the ferry would cripple the French-owned port financially, leaving it struggling to stay afloat.
Captain Francois Jean, port manager, said: “It’s our core business and if the ferry disappears then it would be very difficult to survive. Ultimately, it would mean the closure of the whole port.
“But all the money for running the ferry is from the French side – and the decision is up to them.”
Last year around 252,000 passengers and more than two million tonnes of freight passed through the port.
Forty businesses are based there, employing more than 500 people – around 10% of the local working population.
Yet earlier this month at a meeting in Dieppe, French officials told ferry bosses the annual 20 million euro taxpayer subsidy would not be renewed after December 2014.
And this week a spokesman for the Conseil Générale de Seine Maritime, the public body which helps keep the ferry route in business, told a French newspaper: “We will pay not a penny more.”
Council bosses say losing the port would be a “disaster” for the local economy, both in Newhaven and across the county.
But The Argus understands negotiations between the French and local authorities in Sussex to try to save it from closure have already broken down amid bitter accusations and legal wrangling.
Newhaven Port and Properties (NPP), the port’s French owners, were locked in a High Court battle with East Sussex County Council over the West Beach, which was closed over safety fears in 2008.
The local authority wants to reopen the sandy stretch at the mouth of the marina as a village green, but port bosses argue they would be held liable if anyone was to come to harm.
Today (March 27) the High Court found in favourof Newhaven Town Council's bid to declare the beach a village green – but one insider said the French now simply “won’t do business” with local councils because of the row.
Lewes MP Norman Baker said he was acting as an “honest broker” between the parties and would visit France in coming months to try to reach a solution.
He said: “I’ve been in touch with them for some time and I’m trying to steer the ship into safe waters.
"It’s not easy because relationships between the French and East Sussex County Council in particular are not good.
“The situation with the West Beach has certainly exacerbated matters. But I’m hopeful that we are not yet past the point of no return.”
Port manager Captain Jean, who works for NPP, suggested local authorities in Sussex should step in to support the route financially in the same way taxpayers across the Channel did in 2007.
He said: “The councils here won’t put any money in but exactly why they won’t is a question you would have to ask them.”
In response Councillor James Page, Leader of Lewes District Council, said it was “impossible and illegal” for local authorities in the UK to step in and subsidise the ferry route.
He said: “They are making noises in our direction but it’s not something that a local authority here can do.
“There’s certainly some confusion there. I don’t mean it in a disrespectful way but I think they need to understand the situation a bit more fully.”
One council insider said the French “had no understanding of how local government works over here”.
But they said many UK officials felt they had “too much invested” in the port to let it founder and that the plans to remove the subsidy were being seen as an “empty threat”.
Last year NPP published a masterplan detailing plans to expand and regenerate the port over the next 30 years.
Also, unemployment is high in Dieppe, which would suffer if the route was forced to close.
Wind farm contract
And in October it was announced Newhaven had won a 25-year contract to become the operations and maintenance base for a giant offshore wind farm.
Coun Page said he believed the French were still “very serious” about keeping the port open.
He said: “If they weren’t they wouldn’t have bid for the wind farm contract. That will be a huge amount of revenue for them.
“My personal view is that they will find a way to keep it going.”
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Port no stranger to controversy
This is not the first Anglo-French argument over the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry link.
When the first roll-on, roll-off car ferry sailed into service on the route in 1973, the name chosen for the first ship, The Senlac, caused a cross-Channel spat.
Senlac Hill was the location of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the French were not entirely happy with the choice – despite the victory of William of Normandy.
On board the ship, images of the battle were featured and the cafeteria displayed scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry.
In January 1982 it was announced that Sealink UK would pull out of the route and its agreement with the French railway company SNCF – meaning The Senlac was to be sold.
The crew of 240, including six women, staged a sit-in on board the ship, effectively blocking the French-owned ships from using the port.
In Newhaven a campaign called Save Our Senlac (SOS) was launched with food parcels delivered to the striking crew-men.
The campaign gathered momentum and became national news with Jim Slater, general secretary of the National Union of Seamen, visiting the ship and pledging his full support. He left the ship wearing an SOS badge.
After five weeks of the sit-in, Sealink UK announced that a new agreement had been agreed with the French and most of the 240 crew would keep their jobs.
An exhibition which marks the 40th anniversary of the first sailing of the Senlac from Newhaven to Dieppe in May 1973 will open on Easter Saturday (March 30) at the Newhaven Local and Maritime Museum at Paradise Park, Newhaven.
Former crew members John Paddy and Mick Cutler, who built the exhibit, will be on-hand between 2pm and 5pm to talk about their memories on-board and to welcome any other crew members who served on the Senlac between 1973 and 1985.
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