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Delay privatisation plans, ports urge

Dover will not take plunge until impact of Channel Tunnel is clear, reports Trevor Webster
GOVERNMENT plans to privatise three "trust" ports - Dover, Ipswich and Tyne - this autumn look to be dead in the water.

Both Dover and Ipswich are insisting that their privatisations should be delayed for at least two years and there is a chance that Tyne will take the same view when its board meets over the next week.

In two years' time Britain could have a Labour government with no ambition to pursue privatisation. Former transport secretary Brian Mawhinney unveiled plans for the privatisations in mid-June and gave the trio of "trust ports" (independent authorities established under local legislation) until 4 September to respond.

None has made its final submission, but Dover has already made it clear in an "interim bulletin" that far more time is needed to assess the impact of the Channel Tunnel on its business.

Dover stresses in the document that it is not opposed to privatisation in principle - "so long as it is in the interests of the port and its customers". But it adds: "Uncertainty over the Channel Tunnel means that the future is at present extraordinarily unpredictable."

It believes it needs two summers to see the full impact of the tunnel and to value its business properly. It points out that it should have had the information by now had the tunnel project not been delayed for two years.

Dover is far and away the most valuable of the three ports. But at present valuations of its port business are very imprecise - ranging from pounds 50m to pounds 150m. There is a risk that the Government would be charged once again with selling off the family silver too cheaply if it rushed ahead with privatisation.

Ipswich would also like a delay of two years in the privatisation process, although it too says it does not oppose the idea on principle. It is a much smaller port and suffered a heavy loss when P&O scrapped a ferry service recently, cutting its income by a third. It wants a chance to recover from the blow, which may have reduced its value from around pounds 12m to pounds 8m, and to launch a joint pounds 30m terminal venture with Dutch partners.

Tyne is playing its cards close to its chest until its board meets shortly, but one analyst pointed out that it did not privatise voluntarily when it had a chance four years ago. Its value is believed to be around pounds 40m.

The Department of Transport is refusing to comment until the consultation process ends in early September. The new transport minister, Sir George Young, is regarded as less of a doctrinaire Tory than his predecessor, Mr Mawhinney.