Countdown to Brexit: 86 days – £100m for extra ferries to ease no-deal "severe congestion"

UK Government has quietly awarded contracts to a French, a Danish and a British company – increasing freight capacity by 4,000 lorries a week.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said the awards were "a small but important element" of its no-deal contingency planning.

Standard practice for public procurement requires that such contracts are put out to open tender.  But not in this case.  The Department for Transport stated  that an "unforeseeable" situation of "extreme urgency" meant there was no time for them to comply with the regulated buying procedures – designed to deliver fairness, transparency and value for taxpayers money.  

The real issue is that increased border checks in the case of a no-deal Brexit.  The DfT says that this could "cause delivery of critical goods to be delayed", and "significant wider disruption to the UK economy and to the road network in Kent".

The UK Chamber of Shipping agreed that it is customs procedures that will be the bigger problem.  Chief Executive, Bob Sanguinetti, said: "Government is rightly preparing for every eventuality.”  However, goods will still need to go through the additional customs procedures whichever port they use which is “where the real problems will be."

Liberal Democratic leader, Vince Cable, called the move "complete madness". He added that: “the fact that this money is predominantly going to European companies is nothing short of ironic, reducing Britain to a laughing stock on the global stage."

Three suppliers were awarded a total of £102.9m:

  • £46.6m to the French company Brittany Ferries

  • £42.5m (€47.3m) to Danish shipping firm DFDS

  • £13.8m to British firm Seaborne Freight

Brittany Ferries is to add 19 weekly return sailings to three of its routes: Roscoff to Plymouth, Cherbourg to Poole and Le Havre to Portsmouth - a 50% increase on its current schedule.

Concerns have been raised over the readiness of the British firm contracted by the government to run extra ferries in the event of a no-deal Brexit.  Seaborne Freight was awarded a contract to run a freight service between Ramsgate and Ostend.  The firm has never run a ferry service and a local councillor said it would be impossible to launch before Brexit.

The Department for Transport said that "the extra capacity and vessels would be provided as part of its first services.  As with all contracts, we carefully vetted the company's commercial, technical and financial position in detail before making the award," it added.

The narrow berths for ships at the Port of Ramsgate mean there are few suitable commercial vessels, most of which are currently already in service.  No ferry services have operated from Ramsgate since 2013 – following the collapse of TransEuropa.  Dredging in Ramsgate Port will start on 4 January in preparation for the freight service.

The Government has for some time now acknowledged that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, contingency plans to ease congestion at ports other than Dover would be needed.   However, the Department for Transport quietly posted notices of the awards on an EU portal on Christmas Eve – and we note that - without the award to Seaborne - the Government is in a position where the two beneficiaries of a no-deal Brexit are the EU based Danish and French firms.

John ShuttleworthComment