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Business verdict on Great Yarmouth Outer Harbour

PUBLISHED: 09:32 22 February 2011 | UPDATED: 10:59 22 February 2011

The Great Yarmouth Outer Harbour operated by Eastport.

General view of the outer harbour cranes and Gleadell grain storage facility

The Great Yarmouth Outer Harbour operated by Eastport. General view of the outer harbour cranes and Gleadell grain storage facility

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2011

Great Yarmouth's outer harbour has polarised opinion in the town.

Within the business community there is a division, with newer firms particularly linked to the offshore industry convinced that the harbour’s time will come. One hotelier told me how a group of Canadian contractors were boasting last week of how the harbour was on the verge of a boom and “the Americans were coming”.

But other more established firms operating in and around South Denes, particularly those with links to the port-users group are aghast at how the harbour and the inner port are run. They speak – privately – of their fears that they will be cleared from the area as their leases expire, or even with the use of compulsory purchase orders to make way for new firms – something emphatically denied by Great Yarmouth Borough Council.

One pro-harbour businessman described the situation as a battle between “new and old money”, while another leading figure in the town said there were people used to doing business in the “Masonic Lodges” who were unhappy that they had now been cut out. Those on the other side make almost identical claims about the decision-making process which has led to the harbour’s creation.

It is potentially explosive stuff which again underscores the often poisonous atmosphere which surrounds the project. Port business has a reputation for being cut-throat at the best of times, and there is also the lingering suspicion that rival ports are also in the market for stirring things up.

Harbour operator Eastport UK has made no secret of how it wants to offer the best available deep water facilities to the firms which need it.

In its short life so far the outer harbour has pursued, and abandoned, a container operation, and been called a “PR disaster” after a last minute decision to turn away a shipment from freight firm Panalpina, which would have seen the £7m cranes used for the first time.

But the port has secured a £5m storage deal with Gledhills, and currently the Noble Julie Robertson rig is docked in the harbour being refitted, bringing with it a £3m boost to the local economy, Eastport UK recently revealed. Specialist firm Seajacks, which supplies the wind energy industry is also building a new base next to the outer harbour after outgrowing its Gorleston home.

The river port is also lined with ships.

Yet the activity does not match the expectation which captured the public imagination, of a bustling ferry port with thousand of people coming onshore who would rush to spend their cash on the seafront.

One trader, based nearby, appears to sum up the public mood.

“I think people thought it was going to be more than it is,” he admits.

Driving through South Denes, I drop in and ask Terry Simmons, director of Oaasis Group, an industrial distribution group serving the on and offshore industry, what he thinks.

“I think it’s the best £80m ever spent,” Mr Simmons said. “The cranes can be taken away, we understand that, but the outer harbour can’t be.

“Where I feel strongly is that I think it’s unfair on the people in the town to call it a white elephant or a failure. That port has got a 100 year life, and it has only been open for a year, it’s only in its infancy. Would you judge a child after the first year of its life? If in 40 years it has done nothing, then I think it’s fair to call it a failure.

“There’s still an enormous amount of time to get it right and get it working,” Mr Simmons said. “It can still be a fantastic asset.”

“It has definitely brought business to the town, I know of two or three companies that have come here on the back of it. Some have decided to situate themselves here when they could have gone elsewhere. The people of Great Yarmouth are really fortunate that we have got this built –it’s here and it’s here to stay.

“We are getting work out of it and even the rig has brought money into the town,” he added. “I honestly believe, going forward, it has the potential to be very positive.”

At the Beacon Innovation Centre, in Gorleston, John Best, chief executive of East of England Energy Group, said the harbour had moved from diagrams and conversations around a plan to something that’s “tangible and real”.

“The harbour is a huge piece of infrastructure and it’s there to serve trading needs,” he said. “When a huge investment has been made, it will naturally cause disruption and there remain the challenges of people’s aspirations at the beginnings of the project and the reality of delivering it.

“There has been a fundamental change in the economic environment, but what can’t be denied is that the outer harbour is there. It will evolve, but geographically it’s a perfect location to be able to service the marine engineering assets off our coast for decades to come. I am confident that it will succeed.”

“What they did with the container ports was quite brave. I don’t see that as a recognition of failure,” Mr Best added. “They need to go after different markets and as far as I am concerned the more engaged they are with the engineering market, the more interested we are.

“The rig might be sitting there doing nothing, but you have got the fitters, engineers and the mechanics, people removing the fridges, somebody changing the lightbulbs.

“In essence, it’s a magnet for assets which require the supply chain to service it. The fact that it is in for servicing means you might have 50 businesses in the supply chain that are benefiting – from the local taxis to hotels. That’s all about the economic worth to the community.

“The infrastructure and the port are fundamental, the engineering industry is fundamental, both drill down into economic worth.”

Mr Best also poured scorn on those who believe the harbour has not done what was said on the tin.

“Have the banks done what they said on the tin, has the government done what it said on the tin? If it’s being judged for that then there would be a long queue. What has happened is that you can go down to the harbour mouth and see it. It’s a tangible piece of infrastructure. I am sure it will develop and be successful.

“We are where we are. We can argue the rights and wrongs of it and we need to, perhaps, modify the basis going forward. But the key fact is if you asked today for somebody to spend £100m on infrastructure, would you get it? We need to move beyond what we have got and get on with it and stop moaning.”

What do you think of the outer harbour issue? Write to The Letters Editor, EDP, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE or email EDPLetters@archant.co.uk

Tomorrow: Key opinion formers give their verdicts on the outer harbour debate.

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