Friday, 20 November 2009

The story of Great Yarmouth redevelopment and the loss of dock workers jobs.

Outer Harbour - the inside story.

Eddie Freeman, chief executive of Eastport UK is one of the speakers in today's Shaping Norfolk's Future conference. But as the Yarmouth outer harbour finally gets ready for business, has it delivered what was promised? Public affairs correspondent Shaun Lowthorpe reports.

Eddie Freeman admits that the pressure is on at the moment as contractors put the finishing touches to the Yarmouth outer harbour.

An engineer by trade, he has spent more than 30 years in the ports industry, including a stint in South Africa. The chief executive of Eastport UK is, he says, like a salesman. And he comes across as somewhat of a fixer - brought in by International Port Holdings, the parent company of Eastport, to get the harbour up and running and make it a success.

The 61-year-pld admits that with the global economic downturn adding to the pressure, he has a job on his hands selling the outer harbour to prospective businesses. But also, you sense, he has a battle to convince the people of Great Yarmouth themselves of its merits, some of whom are less than enamoured with what has finally emerged.

Work is almost complete on the new harbour, with hopes high that the first container ships will be set to dock within a few weeks.

And that's the issue in many people's minds - what has been built is primarily at this stage a container port.

Think back a decade and talk was of a harbour bringing jobs and visitors to Norfolk with a roll-on, roll-off ferry service at its heart.

Detailed studies were produced showing that there would be 120,000 visitors coming to the town each year - a boon to the Yarmouth tourist industry. In 2000 a partnership was forged with the Dutch port town of Ijmuiden, and a provisional agreement was signed with Greek firm Superfast Ferries with a view to operating services.

But the business as it is now taking shape looks markedly different.

Critics fear that the harbour will not be able to deliver on promises to create 1000 jobs because the forecasts were largely based on securing a ferry operator to run services from the port, which has since receded from view.

Pinning down exactly how many jobs the port in its current form will create is actually quite difficult as the public bodies who pump-primed the project have not produced any updated studies.

Getting hold of the business case is also tricky, since because it comes under the auspices of the Great Yarmouth Port Authority, which is not subject to the freedom of information act, any request for a copy will be automatically refused, while officials also cite commercial confidentiality as another reason for withholding it.

There is also simmering anger in some quarters that the privately run port will not yield the spin offs for the town that backers of the original project, which was kick-started with around £18m of public cash, once promised.

Relations were also soured earlier this year when the port sacked 11 dock workers as part of a switch to casual labour - fuelling concerns that instead of creating a port for the community to rally around, there was a risk of creating a town within a town.

And while borough council land worth £1.5m has been provided to help set it up, other issues such as creating a viewing platform and doing up Gorleston Pier remain unresolved.

But Mr Freeman, insists the port would bring benefits to the town.

“To get this level of investment going on with this level of ambition at this time in the recession has got to be good news,” Mr Freeman said.“There seems to be no recognition of the fact that we are in a recession and that has its effects.

“The outer harbour isn't the great white hope. Great Yarmouth has been very active in doing all kinds of projects dealing with regeneration. We are just one of these.

“There was a lot of prejudice to overcome in the ports industry and to some extent locally about what we were doing. But it was not based on any fact. I think it's unfair given the fact that we are not open yet. How people can talk about it being a white elephant when it's not open, is an absolute contradiction in terms. There have been complaints about the investment and when people are going to see it - there has been £60m already going in.

“We can't stop people having their views, and we don't want to, we live in a democracy,” he said. “There will always be issues people don't agree with for whatever reason, but we just have to get the right message across.”

Now the focus is centring on the container port operation, where goods arriving at major destinations such as Antwerp can then be quickly transferred to ships and brought in to the UK at Yarmouth. This year saw two £7m cranes installed as part of the development, which will be operated by Port of Singapore, one of the largest operators in the world.

And Mr Freeman said that while not something for the immediate future, Eastport UK still had an open mind on whether a ferry operation could be part of the new facility.

He said there were five strands to the business - containers, offshore and renewable, agricultural, general aggregates, and Roll-on, roll- off ferries (Ro-Ro).

“There's quite a range of industries we are interested in,” he explained. “The renewables market is changing all the time, that's driven as much by technology as politics. With offshore we have got a large market off our coast that needs to be serviced. We are very well positioned to exploit that.

“The range we have been able to consider has been growing during our development period. Our ambitions are quite wide-reaching.

“All ports have got to be flexible,” he added. “We are in a recession. Nobody saw it coming particularly and I don't think anybody is very clear when it is going to end. Certainly the global container market is down. The Ro-Ro market is significantly down. That's tending to suppress other commodities as well.

“There's no doubt about it, everybody is feeling the pinch.

“We are not thinking about next week, we are thinking long-term. As far as the Ro-Ro market is concerned we are keeping a watching brief. Ro-pax is an option within Ro-Ro that we are more than happy to exploit if we are able to. We do not rule anything out. But at this moment in time while the market is still contracting, the decision to launch a Ro-Ro service may not be seen as particularly attractive.

“I don't think it's going to be now, but it's certainly within our strategic planning.

“I am not going to get into a debate about Ro-Ro, I didn't make the promises. There was never a promise. We have said ourselves quite clearly that if we can get somebody that wants to start a Roll-on, Roll-off out of Great Yarmouth and came knocking on our door, we can deliver.

“There's never been a firm promise about this issue. The company they were talking to no longer operates out of the UK but that doesn't mean to say there won't be others.”

Now he said the task in hand was to focus on what has been achieved and build on that.

“It's been a fantastic effort. We have got a new management team here and we are intent on getting this project finished and are all determined to make it really successful.

“The cranes are in,” he said. “At the moment we are just completing some of the paved works. Hopefully by the end of this month, middle of next month, we should be seeing this as a port that's available to do some business.

“We want to create a one-stop shop and make the customer feel really good about doing business here in Great Yarmouth. We want to listen to the client and be as flexible as we can.

“Obviously we are concentrating heavily on containers at the moment and renewables are very close to our heart, the agricultural market is also crucial to us. At the moment we are comfortable and happy with what we have got.

“It's about getting the processes in place and make sure what we are promising, we can deliver. It's about bringing the trade along with us with regards to what we are doing, and listening to the industries.

“I think we have got a brand new culture. It was very much about making the trust port work in the private sector model, it's still a work in progress, but we are very nearly there now. We are a 24/7 port. Traffic will come and go round the clock.

“The port facility is quite crucial to the region. It's the only one that Norfolk has outside of King's Lynn of any size. By building the outer harbour, we have stopped the decline of the port. "

The port is bigger in capacity terms than King's Lynn, Ipswich and Lowestoft. If you look down the East coast, you have got the Humber, ourselves, Felixstowe, then you are down into Tilbury.

“We are very much hoping that we will be able to promote and develop jobs as our infrastructure expands. Just being able to show people around makes a huge difference in marketing terms.

We know what we are about, we are about trying to maximise this port as best we can for the benefit of our community.

“One of the reasons we wanted to be involved in Shaping Norfolk's Future is that we think the port has a very significant role to play in the development of the country and how the county sees itself.”

Like the port of Felixstowe which has helped create jobs behind the town itself and along the A14 corridor, supporters of the outer harbour believe it will create jobs across the region working along the A47 up to the Norwich and even along the A47 corridor.

George Bennett, head of development at Eeda, and a member of the First East board, said the port would help create vital skilled blue collar jobs in the town, while also freeing up land along the river for redevelopment as industries start to cluster around the new outer harbour.

“The easiest way to think of it is like building a road,” Mr Bennett said. “We have paid for the breakwater, we haven't paid for an entire harbour. That's up to market conditions.“We have got a facility that's not quite finished yet,” he said. “The paint isn't even dry, but there is a bit of a British psyche to knock something before it has started. We are looking at a 10-15 year period before the port is anywhere near its full capacity. It needs to build up to that. The private sector investment that's gone into the outer harbour is looking at a 50 year return.

“We are absolutely delighted that the port has been finished and largely achieved on time.”

Mr Bennett said developments, such as the recently announced Saul's Wharf would help regenerate the town with developments similar in scale and ambition to Norwich's Riverside the Ipswich wharf front.

“We have got an opportunity to relocate a number of port businesses in South Denes,” Mr Bennett added. “We have got 8km or river frontage. There's quite a number of opportunities there to really reshape the town with a mixture of commercial and residential development.

“A ferry service is quite important and we would say that the door hasn't closed on that,” Mr Bennett said. “It's still an ambition held by ourselves to see a ferry service. The current climate has affected that. The outer harbour was designed with a ferry service in place, and that requires substantial investment. It's not yet right for that objective but it's still in there. But it's not going to be delivered on day one. It's a 50-year vision. What we have done is safeguard the future of the current port.”

Peter Hardy, executive director for environment and economy at Great Yarmouth borough council, said the port's owners had spotted commercial opportunities previously not thought of and people should not get too hung up on the ferry issue, though he admits it was the aspect of the business which most captured the public imagination.

“When International Port Holdings came in and said they reckoned they could get into the container business, that was a bonus,” Mr Hardy said. “That was certainly an option that nobody had thought of. There are as many jobs coming out of that as there may have been from a ferry service.“In 2003 there was a ferry company saying if we could build the outer harbour, they would like to run a ferry service, which in business terms would have been nearly all freight, but would also carry passengers.

“The ferry market in the southern North Sea continued to show growth in freight until the recession,” Mr Hardy added. “The passenger market was very different. It was slammed very hard by the mushrooming of low cost flights. Harwich had a fast ferry service and they couldn't keep it going. In 2004/05 the other that came in was oil doubling in price.

“All of these external factors prior to the recession meant we were unlucky. The world has moved on.”

But he said the crucial thing was that after more than 20 years of hopes and dreams the outer harbour had been built in the first place.

“The fact it was built has put Great Yarmouth back in the port business for the next century and has put East Anglia back on the trade route,” he said. “It may be that you won't find that many jobs on the quayside, but it's certainly creating opportunities for the agricultural industry all over Norfolk.

“I am not alone in being absolutely delighted that it did come off.”

Mr Freeman, who hails from Middlesborough, and still has traces of a North-East accent, admits that delivering the outer harbour probably represents the last great challenge of his career. And it is one he is determined to achieve before stepping back from the business and pursuing other interests including sailing and hanging out at his favourite pubs, such as the Fat Cat in Norwich, where he now lives.

“At this late stage in my career it represented a challenge to me personally,” he said. I think we have got enough positives in here to see us through what's probably the deepest recession that we could have seen in our lifetime.

“Nothing would give me greater pleasure than seeing this project up and running and successful. And it will be, nobody has come here to fail.”

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