I agree with Cllr Wells that there needs to be investment in the port, but had he been at Oddfellows Hall on 27th October he would have realised that the 200 plus people who attended the packed public meeting about Brett Aggregates plans for Ramsgate port were vehemently opposed to his idea of investment in the port, which is to industrialise it. Most people disagree with Cllr Wells’ vision of a heavily industrialised port belching out massive levels of pollution, damaging the health of local people and threatening our protected marine environments. Most people prefer instead leisure based and traditional maritime uses of Ramsgate’s seafront. But council leader Wells isn’t listening. Arrogantly he makes “no apology” for pursuing a policy of environmental destruction which, if not halted, will surely destroy Ramsgate’s slowly reviving visitor economy which has massive potential for economic regeneration.But to be fair to Cllr Wells he’s not entirely to blame for pursuing out of touch, and potentially risky polices for Ramsgate port. He actually inherited these policies from Thanet Council’s former Labour administration who developed, in secret and behind closed doors, plans to heavily industrialise the port. But instead of choosing, as a new Council leader with a large mandate, to review and consult local people about these policies he decided to ignore public opinion and accelerate the process of industrialisation through secretive efforts to secure Government funding to develop a freight based port with capacity for up to 1 million HGV lorries per year and an expanded capacity for aggregate processing and concrete making.
So let’s rewind and look at how we got to where we are, and how we might be able to undo the mess we are in. The best place to begin is the Ramsgate Maritime Plan. This document was approved by Thanet council’s then ruling Labour Cabinet on 31 July 2014. Amongst other things the plan says the port strategy will concentrate on the development “of RoRo business with a focus of the commodity supply chains” which in layman terms means freight, rather than passenger ferry services. To support a freight service the Plan says that the council will explore the potential “for a longer term inland port/port-centric logistics/strategic rail freight interchange”. The Plan goes on to say that the “port operates an aggregates facility in partnership with Brett Aggregates. There is scope to handle greater volumes (of aggregate) which the commercial port will exploit within the region”. So what we have here is a policy for the port of Ramsgate which was agreed by the previously Labour controlled council for a freight based port with an expanded capacity for aggregate processing and associated concrete manufacture. This is precisely the policy which is now being followed by Council Leader Wells.But this policy is, in my opinion, democratically illegitimate and contrary to the wishes of local people. Why? Well according to a Freedom of Information request I submitted at the time, Labour-led Thanet Council held just three consultation events to discuss its Maritime Plan. All of these consultation events were held in secret behind closed doors and the Council decided who the consultees would be, with only one person representing the public. It’s hard to believe that a plan for the future of Ramsgate Port which will have a profound impact upon the regeneration and economic future of the town, was decided upon, by a so-called democratic socialist party, in what amounted to be total secrecy. This cannot be judged, by any criteria, to have been a democratic decision and its not in my opinion legitimate. Furthermore, in the 2.5 years which have elapsed since this plan was agreed the O’Regan, and now the Brett proposals, for potentially polluting concrete and aggregate related operations at the port have galvanised public opinion in Ramsgate strongly against the idea of large scale aggregate processing and hundreds of HGVs at the port. Yet Cllr Wells makes “no apologies” for pursuing policies which were undemocratically decided, which nobody supports and which, with the massive expansion of nearby Dover Harbour beginning next year, makes no economic sense either.
Rather than taking account of these factors and instead of giving careful thought to the recently published Ramsgate Economic Plan which foresees a visitor based economy for the town, Cllr Wells has rushed headlong into implementing Labour’s secretly decided, and now massively discredited plans for an industrialised port. And just like Labour before him, Cllr Wells, is trying to achieve his aim in secrecy by sneaking his plans for the port under the radar so that nobody knows until it’s too late. Through the avenue of the little-known Kent and Medway Economic Partnership (KMEP) and then to the even lesser well-known South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP) Cllr Wells steered a bid for £4.17million government funding to industrialise Ramsgate port including a doubling of HGV traffic handling capacity from 500,000 vehicles a year to 1 million; the development of an alongside quay for unloading greater quantities of aggregates, the building of a double dekker RoRo Berth and the construction of a freight logistics base near the former Manston Airport site. Cash strapped Thanet Council was happy to top up the Government grant with £2million – presumably from the £3million it has just received from the sale of the freehold of the derelict Ramsgate seafront Pleasurama site.As far as I am able to tell there was no consultation whatsoever with democratically elected TDC councillors about this funding bid. The agendas and minutes of the Cabinet, full Council meetings and the Joint Transportation Board for 2015-16 make no mention of the fact that Thanet Council was seeking a large Government grant to industrialise the port and that it would need to raid its own massively depleted capital reserves to the tune of £2million to help to fund this project. Worse still, just like Labour, Cllr Wells and TDC officers deliberately failed to alert the people of Ramsgate to this funding application and seek their opinion of whether it was a good thing or bad thing. There were no press releases. No announcements of the council’s website. No effort to ask local people what they thought Why? because Councillor Wells and top council bosses knew damn well that if there was a consultation their plans would have been overwhelmingly rejected. And of course being part of Thanet's elite political establishment they arrogantly believe that they know best and you know fuck all about anything. Just as they knew best with the TransEuropa Ferries £3.4 million secret debt disaster and the ongoing £20million Margate Dreamland nightmare.
Fortunately my sources at the KMEP and the SELEP tell me that TDCs bid for money was a rushed and badly put together “dogs breakfast” which failed to meet sufficiently high standards to be included in the final list of funding bids to be put forward to the Government for consideration. They also felt that it was bit odd for TDC to bidding for money to expand Ramsgate port’s RoRo capacity when, almost 4 years after the collapse of Trans Europa Ferries, the council has failed to attract a new operator and when, less than 20 miles away, Dover Harbour is undergoing a £200 million expansion programme which will massively increase its passenger and freight ferry capacity and which will out-compete Ramsgate by any imaginable maritime industry standard or measurement. Sadly Thanet Council, and presumably Cllr Wells, are on record as saying that they intend to rework and strengthen their bid for the industrialisation of the port and resubmit it to Government at the earliest opportunity. Which reminds me of a very interesting paragraph in the Ramsgate Economic Plan which says“Ramsgate has suffered several major shifts in its employment opportunities. It was a supplier of labour to the Kent coalfield and for the myriad of light industrial businesses that grew up in the post-war period to service these industries and the booming holiday trade. The port used to have regular ferry services and a Hovercraft facility. However, many of these sources of employment have waxed and waned or disappeared completely. Instead of a reallocation of resources there has been a retrenchment in investment and the local economy has found it difficult to respond to changing markets and economic circumstances. Ramsgate has been in a type of mourning for the past; recent failures have instilled something akin to a fear of change. This could be termed post industrial trauma.”
So where do we go from here? Well the rejection of the bid to Government to industrialise the port; my exposure of the secretive policy making shenanigans surrounding the port; changing public opinion about the port and how best it should be used in future; coupled with the emergence of new thinking in the Ramsgate Economic Plan, mean that time and space should be allocated for a proper democratic discussion about developing a “People’s Plan” for Ramsgate’s port, harbour and seafront. This report should be based on the fullest consultation with local people and businesses and not conducted behind closed doors as Labour did. In fact MP Craig MacKinlay has already begun to kick start such a discussion with his recently formed regeneration group.Engaging in and promoting such a public debate should not be a problem for Thanet Council Leader Cllr Wells. In 2015 he stood for election on a UKIP Manifesto which says that his party intends to “bring more openness, transparency and cross-party collaborative working” into local government; that UKIP Councillors “believe the community is their boss” and that UKIP intends to “give local people control over planning”. Surely these manifesto commitments mean that Cllr Wells and his UKIP councillor colleagues, should halt the headlong, secretive, dash to industrialise Ramsgate Port and begin a genuine dialogue with local people about a long-term and sustainable future their port and seafront. Whatever the outcome of such a dialogue there is no doubt that Cllr Wells’ credibility will be hugely strengthened by dropping the secrecy and openly talking with local people. Come on Chris the ball is in your court.