Harbour critic invited to speak out

COUNCILLORS probing the development of Great Yarmouth’s outer harbour have rebuffed suggestions there will be any cover-up in their inquiry and invited a leading critic of the scheme to attend a scrutiny session next year.

Norfolk County Council’s scrutiny committee is to look at County Hall’s involvement in the project which critics have slammed as a waste of public money at a meeting in February.

On Tuesday, the committee finalised the list of people they would like to speak at the session including arch-critic John Cooper, from Gorleston, as well as officials from EastPort UK, the private firm now running the harbour, former MP Tony Wright and council officers involved in developing the scheme.

Mr Cooper, a former port welfare officer, said: “I am overwhelmed at the chance to let the ratepayers of the borough find out just how much money they are needlessly paying.

“We have been fighting for this for three years. We really want a public inquiry. If the scrutiny committee, when they see the evidence we have got, realises the magnitude of the problem, we will get a public inquiry.

“The major issue is the port design. It cost �1.5m of public money modelling the design and it was not used.” He said he feared that because the design was wrong there would be no chance of getting a ferry and he felt the real reason the container operation had been suspended was because the swell was too great to load containers on a ship rolling about.

Mr Cooper is also angry that as part of the port deal Norfolk County Council has agreed to take over responsibility for Haven Bridge from the old Yarmouth Port Authority.

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He said the council had admitted to him that the bridge was not insured and said it had also confirmed that just maintaining the bridge would cost �300,000 a year.

Mr Cooper outlined his concerns about the port in a series of emails to councillors in which he stated his worry there would be a cover-up.

The committee decided he should be invited to attend as a witness and face questions from the committee.

Conservative councillor Tony Adams said he felt that Mr Cooper needed to explain himself and provide proof of his allegations and the committee agreed that members from each of the four political parties should go through his emails and see what questions can be formulated around them.

“Mr Cooper has made a number of very serious allegations and I think he should be asked to provide proof,” said Mr Adams. “He should be invited and should also be in the spotlight by actually providing proof of what he is saying.”

The committee has also asked for details of the members of the Great Yarmouth Port Authority, its role and any assets it still holds.

Critics, who also include Potter Heigham county councillor Paul Rice, have questioned whether tax payers have got a good return on their �17.9m investment and highlight the failure of the container venture, the lack of a ferry business and the lack of promised jobs so far.

However, champions of the port, including borough council leader Barry Coleman, have hailed a report on EastPort prepared for the cabinet scrutiny committee as a vindication of their role in promoting the scheme.

The detailed paper traces the development of the project from its outset and rebuts many of the concerns that have been raised.

It says the budget for the project was accurately predicted with no significant cost creep and a strong endorsement of its business case came from the fact that all funding partners - from the EU to Eeda – accepted it.

The report says the economic downturn impacted on plans for a ro-ro ferry and container terminal but stresses the container terminal investment was wholly a private sector one. It also says the prediction for up to 750 new jobs could still be achieved over the next 10 to 15 years.

Addressing criticism of its design, the report says the harbour swell caused by south-easterly winds also affected other ports such as Felixstowe, and the position of the entrance had been determined by hydraulic modelling.