Crunch time approaches for Outer Harbour

A CAMPAIGNER fighting for a public inquiry into the development of the Great Yarmouth outer harbour will be centre stage at a special meeting looking at whether the �18m of public funds invested in the project has delivered for the town.

For the last three years, John Cooper has raised a series of questions about the controversial development, with many of those concerns being raised in the letters pages of the Yarmouth Mercury.

But now the 74-year-old is to come face to face with councillors and officials from International Port Holdings, which owns EastPort, at a special meeting of Norfolk County Council’s scrutiny committee on Tuesday.

After years of planning, the outer harbour scheme finally got off the ground after receiving support totalling around �18m from the East of England Development Agency and Norfolk County Council, plus land owned by the borough council.

The committee has invited the former lifeboatman along to hear him set out his concerns, which are centred on whether in developing the project Norfolk County Council, and Great Yarmouth Borough Council short-changed the public by giving away land and assets too cheaply, while also agreeing to take on extra burdens such as the upkeep of Haven Bridge.

Both councils strongly believe that although the nature of the scheme has changed from a planned roll-on roll-off ferry operation to a container port, and now a port specialising in the offshore industry, the scheme will bring economic benefits to the town in the longer term.

And the session will also hear from backers of the scheme including current owners International Port Holdings, and council officials involved in the outer harbour scheme. Chairman of Great Yarmouth Port Authority Steve Eldred has also been invited, but is unable to attend.

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But the pensioner believes he can prove the councils bungled the development of the scheme and has supplied the committee with a series of detailed questions which he hopes will persuade them of the need to back a public inquiry.

“I believe next Tuesday will be make or break,” Mr Cooper said. “I will either convince everybody that there is something to answer for and there will then be a public inquiry, or I will fluff it and not make an impression, and it will die a death.

“It would be nice to hear them admit they have made a gigantic mistake. We can’t go back on what’s been given to IPH, that’s all been legally done. However, while it may be legal, it isn’t honourable.

“They put in the �18m, but they shouldn’t have put in the inner harbour, yet to get around the state aid question they agreed that Great Yarmouth Port Company would give the Port Authority one share which is worth �1.75.

“I think what has been done isn’t only dishonourable but it’s left a huge burden on the ratepayers. I stand to get nothing out of it, but like anybody else in Norfolk, I stand to pay for the West Bank and Haven Bridge for years to come.

“I get terribly angry when I think about it. We have just been conned, but it’s not just us, it’s the East of England Development Agency, and the European Union. Item 1.1 of the project brief states very clearly that the Great Yarmouth Port Authority is looking for a partner to share in a joint venture of the outer harbour and taking a share in future commercial revenues

“It can’t be more plain than that, but it’s ended up that the Great Yarmouth Port Authority now doesn’t get anything apart from a share worth �1.75.

“I have really had it in the neck over this, yet the more I have had it in the neck, the more I have felt there has been a cover up.

Members of Norfolk County Council’s scrutiny committee want to consider the council’s role in bringing outer harbour to life - and examine issues about the port which have emerged in recent months.

The meeting, which starts at 10am in the Edwards Room at County Hall, will draw on the knowledge and expertise of a number of people with first-hand experience of the port’s creation and operation, including council officials and EastPort UK, the private company now operating the port.

The Committee will examine a number of issues and seek to determine the background to the county council’s investment in the EastPort development and why the council chose to invest.

Members will also consider, from the authority’s point of view, whether the project has met its original aims and objectives, and establish what governance arrangements were put in place by the County Council, to protect its investment.

It will also seek to establish whether any lessons can be learnt for future similar investments.

A report to the committee outlines the county council’s financial contribution to the project and highlights that the council provided no land for the creation of the new harbour. The report highlights that the principle liability taken on by the council is in the form of maintenance to the Haven Bridge.

With commercial operations at the port around a year old, the report also highlights the number of companies that have located in or around the harbour as a result of its development and assesses the port’s current and future role in the Great Yarmouth economy.

Paul Morse, committee chairman, said: “The outer harbour is an asset which is vital to the future success of Great Yarmouth’s economy and I am sure elected members of all parties are looking forward to receiving information about a number of issues which have emerged in recent months.

“I hope that bringing various parties together we can have a constructive discussion both about both past involvement and the positive role the whole port can potentially play in the future success of both the Great Yarmouth and Norfolk economies in the longer term.”