Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Government Ridiculed Over RoRo Freight Investment in Company with Neither Ships nor Experience

Chris Grayling Supports Yet Another Under Fire Decision
Shipping News Feature
UK – Unsurprisingly the government, already berated daily over the Brexit controversy, has come under fire once more after pronouncing the latest idea to ease congestion in the face of a hard no-deal exit from the EU. By announcing an investment of £107 million in three ferry companies to provide extra capacity, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has seemingly done little more than infuriate a fresh tranche of voters. Whether laying on extra ferries goes any way to solve a potential congestion problem is of course questionable, traffic levels are not set to increase, merely those delays when goods arrive and are subject to lengthy customs clearance.

Assuming ships will discharge as normal the government thinking is presumably to disperse the problem to a variety of ports. Aside from this possibly being the most wrong-headed approach to the problem the minister did himself little favours with Brexiteers by giving the bulk of the cash to two foreign owned groups. Danish company DFDS was awarded a contract worth £47.3 million whilst France's Brittany Ferries’ tranche is worth £46.6 million.

The main criticism however concerns the third ferry company, or rather company. British firm Seaborne Freight has been awarded a £13.8 million deal to provide a ferry service between the Port of Ramsgate and, at this point, many will doubtless question the government’s ability to understand exactly what they are getting into. Ramsgate, as many may remember has a history with ferries, and generally that seems to have been a litany of failures.

Ramsgate is not a large port and the number and type of RoRo vessels able to operate there is somewhat limited. Sally Line UK operated the Holyman Sally Line service from Port of Ramsgate to Ostend from 1993 to 1998 when the company decided it was longer viable. Transeuropa Ferries ran a service with three or more ships from 1998 serving the Belgian port of Ostend with both freight and passenger options until bankruptcy in April 2013 whilst Euroferries proposed a Ramsgate - Boulogne service from November 2009 which never got underway.

Ramsgate gained notoriety as the only British port still exporting live animals for slaughter abroad when over 40 sheep died when being transported for export in 2012, most being put down due to their condition. In 2016 Gefco initiated an import service, again from Ostend, shipping cars and reviving a trade originally begun in the 1960’s. Currently however it appears no ferry services operate from the port and it mainly serves as a shipping point for aggregates and to supply the offshore wind farms.

Seaborne says it has thoroughly researched a new RoRo freight service, but critics say the company, only incorporated in April 2017 and with liabilities in its latest accounts (as at 30 April 2018) shown as almost £375,000 after discounting just £35,169 in tangible assets, many are querying the capabilities of such an organisation which has no experience of operating a ferry service nor the apparent wherewithal to do so (discounting government funds of course).

Seaborne has links through its directors to another ferry outfit. Jean-Michel Copyans, quoted as CEO, was a director of freight at MyFerryLink, the Eurotunnel backed outfit that rose from the ashes of SeaFrance until it too disappeared beneath the waves. There are also connections with another logistics related company, Albany Shipping which describes itself as ‘established London based vessel operator in the offshore and oil and gas industry, and an investment advisor to a UK Shipping Fund registered in the UK’ and the two outfits share directors. Albany, incorporated in 2014, showed no income in its first trading year with accrued liabilities of £37,000. By the end of the next financial year (December 2016) that debt had risen to £92,000 with debtors of just £8.

Seaborne Freight directors Keith Jones and Brian Raincock both started on the board at Albany Shipping in October 2017 joining fellow Seaborne director John Edmond Paul Sharp, an Albany director since February 2014. Sharp was previously a director at Mercator Ship Chartering, a company subject to a compulsory liquidation in 2014 after prosecution by HM Customs and Excise when insolvent. Another John Sharp company, Mercator Platforms was struck off in 2015, whilst Mercator International was wound up by order of the Court in 2014 after another claim from HM Customs and Excise. This company shows debts jumping from £46,000 in 2012 to £1.46 million a year later.

One name noticeably absent is that of Ben Sharp, noted on the Albany Shipping website as CEO and yet not listed at Companies House as either a director, or a person of significant control of that company. Whilst Albany boasts its ‘established’ status Seaborne Freight claims on its website that ‘the facilities on board are designed around professional freight driver needs’, a neat trick as the company neither owns nor operates any ships.

It is claimed in the media that, should Brexit come to a satisfactory conclusion with a deal agreed by all, those companies promised these government sweeteners will still receive a portion of the promised funds. We wait with bated breath to see what transpires, certainly those in the trade seem unimpressed with Road Haulage Association (RHA) chief executive Richard Burnett pointing out that ‘Seaborne Freight has three months to source the vessels, recruit and train staff, and put all the infrastructure in place to launch the service before we leave the EU. It sounds like a very tall order.’

Chris Grayling, in what is now his usual devil may care style, seems to be employing an ostrich like defence when faced with the company’s pedigree. Speaking to the BBC he said he made no apology for supporting a new start-up British business and the contract with Seaborne had been structured to ensure things worked out. Seaborne has said dredging into Ramsgate harbour will commence within a week to ensure that the two ferries it wishes to start the service with, due to increase to four in short order, will be able to operate from the port.

Photo: Port of Ramsgate