Probe into port extension claims

AN INVESTIGATION was under way last night into whether a major extension at an Essex port escaped proper planning scrutiny because incomplete information was given to civil servants.

AN INVESTIGATION was under way last night into whether a major extension at an Essex port escaped proper planning scrutiny because incomplete information was given to civil servants.

If new berthing for facilities for a high-speed ferry from Harwich to Holland had been built in the place where Parliament permitted them to be, passengers would now be embarking six miles offshore.

Instead, environmental campaigners have called for an inquiry into how incomplete information for the facilities came to be signed off by a minister and recognised by Parliament in 1996.

They also questioned the reliability of the planning process in the light of massive new expansion plans in the port at Bathside Bay.

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However, current port operators Hutchison Ports (UK) Ltd last night dismissed the claim.

A statutory instrument passed in 1996 empowered Harwich International Port, then owned by Stena Line, to build new £12 million berthing facilities for its new high-speed ferry, the Discovery, to the Hook-of-Holland.

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Under the Harwich Parkeston Quay Revision Order 1996, the work was only to be carried out in an area defined by a set of Ordnance Survey national grid reference points.

Providing this happened, according to the order, the work fell into a category "whose characteristics do not require that it should be made subject to an environmental assessment".

But managers from Ordnance Survey yesterday confirmed the co-ordinates laid down in the order pinpointed an area for development six miles off Harwich and just metres away from the notorious World War Two fortress, Roughs Tower, also known as the Principality of Sealand.

Jenni Meredith, spokesperson for RAPE (Residents Against Port Expansion), discovered the apparent mistake while researching material for the imminent inquiry into the proposed new container terminal at Bathside Bay.

She said it raised "grave" concerns about the whole planning process. She has written to the Department for Transport demanding they investigate.

She also questioned whether planners relied on the co-ordinates in deciding if an environmental impact study in the partly protected area was necessary or not.

"It may have been that there would have been an impact if other reference points had been used. We just don't know and that's why I've asked people to look into it," she said.

"It makes you think what other things are out there hidden in the papers that have been swamped upon us by Hutchison at the library about Bathside Bay."

An Environment Agency spokesman agreed that the co-ordinates did look incorrect, but he stressed their officers would look at all the paperwork before making a decision to investigate or not.

He said: "When we get these papers, we look not only at the co-ordinates, but also at the actual drawings and plans attached and that's where we make our decisions.

"It would have been pretty clear from them that these berths were not going to be way out at sea."

A spokesman for Hutchison, which bought the port in 1998, said: "All this took place prior to Hutchison's acquisition of Harwich International Port. We take great care to ensure that all regulations are followed in the pursuit of our activities.

"This issue completely unconnected to the proposals for Bathside Bay and has no relevance to them at all."

Hutchison later added it believed a clerical error had occurred at some stage in the process because two digits were missing from the co-ordinates. Had they been included, a spokesman said, they would have pinpointed the port, not the North Sea.

A spokesman for the Department for Transport acknowledged it was a complex matter, but they were "seeking answers".

nTHE Harwich to Holland superferry Stena Discovery is out of action due to a hole in the hull caused by an accident while it was mooring on Tuesday morning as it arrived from the Hook in Force eight winds and on a flood tide.

Stena managing director Pim de Lange said the accident was caused by a "misjudgement". The ship's hull was punctured about eight metres above the water on the car deck level. Nobody was hurt. One freight vehicle was slightly dented.

The ship is being repaired, at the cost of £50,000, and should be back in operation by this Saturday. Until then the fast service is suspended, but there are still two ferries a day, the Stena Britannica and the Stena Hollandica.

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