HARBOUR IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Bosses told to be more open

BOSSES in charge of Great Yarmouth’s outer harbour were urged to be more open and communicate better with the public about what they are doing and how it will benefit the town.

This week the development of the harbour took centre stage at a Norfolk County Council meeting looking at the authority’s involvement in the scheme. The harbour, which has been operating since last year, has seen several shifts in emphasis from original plans for a ferry service, to a container port, and more recently a port specialising in servicing the offshore energy industry.

The packed session also heard concerns from Gorleston-based campaigner John Cooper, who raised a series of points about whether the county council and Yarmouth Borough Council had given away public assets including land too cheaply to port bosses EastPort UK and its parent company International Port Holdings (IPH).

But it also heard a pledge from Eliza O’Toole, vice-chairman of IPH, that the firm would be more open in future, and details of a new community and marine liaison committee she had set up, where businesses and public bodies linked to the port would be able to discuss ongoing issues, which held its first meeting at the town hall on Wednesday.

But Mr Cooper said the scheme had proved a moveable feast and failed to deliver on promises to create hundreds of jobs in the town.

The 74-year-old former port welfare officer said there were problems with the design of the port, which meant that many vessels could not dock there because of too much sea swell, and he questioned why the county council had taken over the running of the Haven Bridge from the port authority at an extra cost of �1.5m.

“I am a supporter of the outer harbour, but our port doesn’t seem to have a road map at all,” Mr Cooper said. “What we need is a proper map, and stick to it.”

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Former Yarmouth MP Tony Wright, who also spoke at the meeting criticised the fact that the full details about the �80m project, including how much taxpayers would have to pay in total for the facility, factoring in pensions and public infrastructure, such as Haven Bridge, had not been disclosed. He also told the council’s cabinet scrutiny committee meeting at County Hall on Tuesday the harbour operators had scored a public relations “own goal” by closing Gorleston’s south pier to the public on health and safety grounds.

He said: “In my opinion the concept of the outer harbour has always been a good thing for Great Yarmouth and I feel it will prove to be value for money. However, what came out clearly in the early stages is that there is an issue of transparency and when you talk about �18m, are there other liabilities that will be picked up by the ratepayers of Yarmouth?

“It does give cause for concern that there will be pension liabilities, liabilities for the bridge and West Quay and I think we are part of the negotiated settlement with International Port Holdings.”

On the subject of the pier car park, he said: “Suddenly, it has been closed to people. There was a commitment that people would be able to come down in the car and enjoy the sea, but that commitment has not been fulfilled.” Labour representative Mr Wright, who lost in last May’s general election to Tory Brandon Lewis, said he hoped the harbour, launched in 2007, would create jobs and regenerate the town, not result in dock workers losing their jobs.

Mr Wright added: “Where there were issues with regeneration, to me regeneration meant jobs creation. The first act to sack the dock workers did not smack of regeneration to me.” He believed the harbour would have been a success had the project gone ahead when it was first mooted in the 1980s. However, the county council backed out, feeling it would not be good value for a �45m investment.

Eliza O’Toole, vice-chairman of IPH, said the port’s development was driven by the commercial needs of customers, although she conceded the firm needed to be better at communicating with the public and stakeholders about what it does.

“In our first 12 months we have focused very much first of all on growing the trade of the river port,” she said. “In addition we very much focused on the construction of the outer harbour. Unfortunately we didn’t focus well enough on communications with stakeholders. You have my word, we will undertake better communications.”

The scrutiny committee agreed to revisit the outer harbour issue in 18 months and recommended the harbour operators communicate better with the public.