Anger at sailing barges charges plan

By Sharon AsplinA PLAN to charge sailing barges to use an East Anglian port could act as the “death knell” to a town's maritime heritage, operators have warned.

By Sharon Asplin

A PLAN to charge sailing barges to use an East Anglian port could act as the “death knell” to a town's maritime heritage, operators have warned.

A spokesman for barge operators who use Maldon port said some of them feared they could be forced into moving their historic craft to other ports next year.

But the port operators insisted the costs would be negligible and added it had a duty to improve the port for all users, not just the barge owners.

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The Maldon Harbour Improvement Commissioners are considering charging sailing barges every time they use the port of Maldon with passengers - currently only vessels carrying cargo have to pay a levy.

Paul Jeffries, chairman of the Maldon Barge Operators Group, claimed the proposed charges could more than double the cost of operating a barge at Maldon.

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“It could be the death knell of Maldon's history as a barge port lasting hundreds of years,” he added.

“Last year's increase in charges by Maldon District Council for use of the quay has put barge owners under enough financial pressure already and introducing a charge for using the port will make it very hard for most of us to continue operating out of Maldon.”

All the barges are historic craft, some more than 100 years old, and need constant maintenance. Four are run by charities and all are supported by enthusiasts who struggle to keep them sailing.

Group secretary, Martin Phillips, said: “We just do not know where this is going to end.

“The effect of the barges being forced to go elsewhere could be catastrophic for Maldon's tourist industry. Will people visit an empty quay?”

While the barge operators welcomed efforts to modernise the port and being consulted about the plan, they feared little profit would be made for improvements.

Richard Titchener, master of the Cirdan Trust's sailing barge Xylonite, said: “The scale of fees proposed, while representing a massive increase to barge operator's costs, would not in themselves even meet the proposed administrative costs of the commissioners, so where is the 'improvement' in that?”

The commissioners are considering from April levying any craft that charges to take people on the water, even those run by charities.

But clerk Ron Hall, who said the commissioners had to comply with the latest Government regulations, insisted it would work out at about £1 per head a day.

“That's less than half a pint of beer. I cannot believe that's truly doubling the costs,” he added.

“But we have called a public meeting next week and we will listen to what they have to say. There will also be public consultation period.

“The harbour commissioners have a huge number of responsibilities to the general public and we have to do what's best for the community at large, from the man who walks his dog along the seawall by the harbour to the barge operators.

“The port users, while exceedingly important, are only one small part of our duties.”

The proposal to levy harbour dues will be discussed at a public meeting in the conference room of the Town Hall in Maldon at 8pm on October 22.

After a month's consultation, the board of the commissioners will make a final decision.

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