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Page last updated at 16:50 GMT, Friday, 6 February 2009

Docks decline?

Peter Trollope
Editor, Politics Show North West

Three thousand jobs could be threatened at Liverpool docks according to companies operating in the port, who say they are facing crippling new business rates.

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Video: Liverpool docks under threat

It is exactly 300 years since work began on Liverpool's first dock.

They rapidly became a source of wealth and work which fuelled the growth of the entire area.

The docks, which generate 2.5bn of business each year, survived the great depression, two world wars, and the industrial unrest of the 80's, but now they are facing what could be their biggest challenge.

MPs campaign

The problem has arisen after the Government's Valuation Office Agency has changed the way it collects rates from the docks. Historically, they have only charged the dock owners - but now each individual business gets a bill, often for hundreds of thousand of pounds. A bill many companies never ever expected to get or to budget for.

Louise Ellman, Lab MP for Liverpool Riverside is campaigning to help those hit by huge rate bills.

She says: "This is a major problem for port businesses, caused by the failings of the Valuation Office Agency.

"Local authorities are now required to issue, in some cases, very large and disputed bills for the 2008/2009 financial year, while the massive backdated element of the bill has still to land on the desks of company directors."

Constituents fall victim

Tall ships in mersey
Tall ships operated out of Liverpool

Mrs Ellman is MP for Liverpool Riverside, where stevedoring firm Thomas Nichols Brown called in the administrators last month because of crippling new business rates.

Its smaller Wirral-based sister company, Dobro, also went into administration and 27 jobs have been lost.

The BBC has been told by some firms that they face a similar future if they have to pay the bills.

Andy Nichols, director of Thomas Nichols Brown said: "It's sad for all the people who've worked here. Since we set up here in 2005 TNB has paid 150,000 a year to the Dock owners.

That covered both rent and, crucially, rates.

But late last year we got a visit telling us our bill was going up by 200%. It was something we just could not meet..

Now they are fighting back.

Over the water in Birkenhead, company boss Kieron Hall heads a protest group dedicated to getting the valuation office's backdated demand dropped.

Kieron Hall said: "Our clients have already paid us. We can't ask them for more money from jobs done three years ago"

Job losses

The Mersey Dock Rating Group say that 70 firms and 3,000 jobs are under threat if the demands for back payment persist. Indirectly 26,000 jobs depend on these docks.

Some fear that the impact could even start to reverse the past two decades of regeneration on Merseyside. Dave Pendleton, from the Mersey Maritime regeneration group says: "We do not want to go back to that. We need the government to do something quickly"

The Treasury Select Committee is now recommending that the valuation office drops its backdated demands and waits until the next revaluation date, next year in 2010, to bring new charges in.

The Government will respond to those findings in the Spring. Whichever way, it is too late for Andy Nichols who says: "To drive healthy businesses into bankruptcy is just mind boggling."

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