Welcome for freeze in backdated bills

THE Haven Gateway Partnership has welcomed moves by the Government to freeze millions of pounds of backdated business rates that have been threatening thousands of jobs across the ports industry.

But the partnership has also urged ministers to take action on the “fundamentally unfair” system of Light Dues which, it claims, impacts disproportionately on the Haven Ports, and on the Port of Felixstowe in particular.

A decision by the Labour government to change the way rates are charged in the ports sector saw many companies receive massive rates bills, backdated to 2005.

Among those affected were cargo handlers, ship agents, ferry operators, terminal operators, warehouse companies and many other allied businesses with premises within larger port estates which were previously not rated separately.

“We really do welcome the fast action the new Government has taken in freezing backdated rates and look forward to seeing this matter resolved once and for all,” said Haven Gateway chairman George Kieffer.

“The Haven Gateway Partnership has strongly supported the long-running campaign against these iniquitous backdated demands and we have spoken out many times on the issue. We are delighted that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are carrying through on their pre-election promise to deal with this unfair and ruinous attack on our vital ports industry.”

In some cases, the backdated rates bills received by port-based businesses were larger than the firms’ entire annual turnover.

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“As a result, we have seen companies in some parts of the country go to the wall already, while others have clung on by a thread, technically insolvent, as councils held back from enforcing the bills,” said Mr Kieffer.

He has already written to the new Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, underlining the need to cancel the backdated rates and give port companies the certainty they need as they plan their business strategies.

“It is so important to maintain the competitiveness of the sector and we saw the previous administration’s action of backdating the business rate claims following the revaluation as a direct attack on the viability of the smaller ports in particular and the sector in general and the contribution it makes to the UK economy,” added Mr Kieffer.

“We hope that this decision regarding rates signals a government that has more support and understanding for our country’s vital ports and wider maritime sector.”

Mr Kieffer has also written to the new Shipping Minister, Mike Penning, urging him to give priority to the implementation of the Atkins Report recommendations on Light Dues, the charges that ships using UK ports pay towards the running of the three lighthouse authorities in the UK and Ireland.

“The Light Dues charges as currently structured are fundamentally unfair and impact disproportionately on the Haven Ports, and the Port of Felixstowe in particular, which is estimated to account for �13.7million, over 20% of all such dues collected in the whole of the UK and Ireland,” said Mr Kieffer.

Of an additional �21m increase put in place by the previous government, nearly one-third (�6.4m) will be derived from shipping calling at just one single cargo facility within the Haven, he said, “thus highlighting the inequity of this particular proposal against the background ongoing inequity of the core charging regime/structure.”

He warned that, if changes were not made to the Light Dues system, the British ports sector would suffer, with its competitive position being eroded and a decline in the number of ships calling.

“This could lead to a slow-down and even a halt in major investments in UK port infrastructure that are vital to the future economic growth of the nation,” he said.

This was of major concern given the expansions planned at Felixstowe South, currently under way, and Bathside Bay, Harwich, he added.