Page last updated at 15:58 GMT, Thursday, 11 March 2010

Dover Harbour Board accused of misleading ferry firms

The Port of Dover is the largest passenger port in northern Europe

Three ferry companies have accused Dover Harbour Board of abusing its monopoly power and misleading them.

SeaFrance, P&O and Norfolkline claim £60m they provided to pay for a second terminal at Dover port is now earmarked to cover a pension fund deficit.

They have also protested at a proposed 35% rise in tariffs over the next three years and are threatening legal action.

Dover Harbour Board said it was "extremely surprised" at the claims it had abused its monopoly powers.

The board, which is pressing ahead with sell-off plans, also said many statements were "inaccurate or simply wrong".

In a joint letter, the ferry companies said they had learned the second terminal was "no longer an immediate priority due to the privatisation process and there would be no obligation on the new owner to actually build it".

We have a very, very poor relationship with the Dover Harbour Board in terms of confidence and trust
Robin Wilkins, SeaFrance

They also said they were always told excess dues paid over the past three years were to pre-fund new development.

They said they were led to believe cash was required because Dover's "non-profit making trust port status meant it couldn't borrow the money from other sources".

Helen Deeble, chief executive of P&O Ferries, said: "It now seems that the £60m will simply land up as part of the privatisation assets of the port.

"To make matters worse, Dover Harbour Board have not only weakened our finances during the worst recession for 60 years but they are now demanding punitive increases in future port dues.

"They utterly fail to recognise this major threat to the continued employment of seafaring and shore staff in the Dover area."

Dover MP Gwyn Prosser raised the matter in the Commons on Thursday

She said the ferry companies were considering various choices of legal action.

Robin Wilkins, managing director of SeaFrance, added: "We have a very, very poor relationship with the Dover Harbour Board in terms of confidence and trust as to exactly what their plans are."

In a statement, Dover Harbour Board said: "It is entirely premature to be talking publicly about issues which we assumed would be discussed privately for at least another three to five months in order to reach mutual agreement and understanding.

"It is upsetting that these operators would therefore go as far as to hold a press conference, again without our knowledge."

Further meetings with the companies were scheduled, it added.

Dover's Labour MP Gwyn Prosser said plans to sell off the port had been thrown into "chaos and confusion" following threats of legal action and allegations of financial irregularities.

Raising the issue in the Commons, he urged the Leader of the House to call an emergency debate.

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