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Attempt to pour oil on troubled waters

PUBLISHED: 14:08 26 October 2010

SEEN for decades as the key to Great Yarmouth’s economic prosperity the outer harbour finally opened amid much fanfare earlier this year.

But with bouquets turning to brickbats in recent months, council leaders moved this week to quell the tide of controversy engulfing the facility.

A wave of negative headlines in recent weeks raised question marks over the long-awaited facility which became operational in February.

In the last fortnight, a ship’s captain abandoned an attempt to dock in rough weather and port bosses were criticised for the last minute cancellation of a power station parts shipment that would have seen the harbour’s £7m cranes used for the first time.

Both events produced a flurry of letters from Mercury readers labelling the facility a “white elephant” and “jobs let-down”, and accusing outer harbour owners EastPort of wasting public money. Others suggested the outer harbour might be used for pedalo racing and the idle PSA container cranes turned into hanging baskets.

But, speaking exclusively to the Mercury, borough council deputy leader Barry Stone and cabinet member Graham Plant strongly defended the £18m public investment in the project.

Cllr Plant said: “The critics would have wanted this not to cost a penny, but you have to do deals to make things happen. The benefits to the town are far greater than the assets we provided. The borough traded in some useless land for a £70m outer harbour, it is a fantastic outcome.

“Business plans are not set in stone – they just use the best assumptions at the time. Obviously there is an aspiration where you wish to be, but market conditions and priorities change. We have had a recession which has hit the town really hard and there has been a 40pc downturn in container traffic.

He added: “What is emerging is a new energy market that we need to exploit to take advantage of renewable energy and decommissioning gas rigs.

“Geographically we are in the ideal position as the gateway to Europe, and the outer harbour is making it possible to take advantage of that.”

Cllr Plant who was last week handed the transport and travel brief on Norfolk County Council pledged he would be giving a priority to road and rail improvements and a third river crossing to build on the economic stimulus provided by the outer harbour.

Criticism of the outer harbour for failing to create more employment and shelving plans for a roll-on roll-off ferry were branded “ill-informed” by Cllr Stone. “The critics don’t know the whole story, but it is difficult to refute the allegations because of commercial sensitivity.

“The outer harbour is competing with long established ports like Felixstowe and Harwich in the middle of an economic recession.

“It is doing well despite the downturn and the future looks rosy, but there are not going to be 1,000 people working there from day one.”

In a double blow to port bosses cargo ship The Arklow Viking was forced to abandon an attempt to dock at the outer harbour due to the swell a week before the company was accused of a PR disaster for turning away a power station parts shipment from freight firm Panalpina.

EastPort also received a stream of negative publicity for closing Gorleston’s south pier car park last year as a result surface damage.

However Cllr Plant branded the criticism “disgusting and poisonous”. He added “It may well be in the future the cranes are not needed and something else replaces them. The port is very flexible – it can change in a short period of time.

“It is disappointing that people knock things. The outer harbour is a fantastic facility that will generate a lot of wealth for the town and we should be shouting about it from the rooftops. I will be meeting a delegation of MPs in London next week to do just that.”

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