COUNCIL chiefs need to play their part to secure a cross-Channel ferry operation from Weymouth.
That’s the message from the boss of Condor Ferries who has made no promises about the firm’s future in Weymouth, but says harbour fees from a new super ferry the company wants to buy could fund upgrade works in the harbour.
Watch a video of the interview here
Condor Chief Executive James Fulford said ideally the company wanted to stay in Weymouth, but it was dependant on works being done to upgrade berth 1 to accommodate the high-speed trimaran.
The company has not ruled out making a contribution to these works.
In an interview with the Dorset Echo Mr Fulford explained how:
- Condor is looking to upgrade its vessels and invest in a safe, efficient and up-to-date fleet to keep the Channel Islands connected and supplied into the future
- Condor Express launched in 1996 and Condor Vitesse launched in 1997 were coming to the end of their lives
- To replace existing vessels, Condor wants to buy a £50m high-speed trimaran (Austal H270) at 102 metres long which would have 20 per cent more capacity, offer a far more comfortable ride and be able to sail in adverse weather
- Funding from investors to buy the new ferry can be unlocked if Condor receives the certainty of a new Channel Islands operating licence. A decision on the licence, expected to last up to 10 years, is expected at the end of June
- If successful, the new ferry would begin sailings from Easter 2015, replacing the dual sailings from Weymouth and Poole
- Berth 1 near Weymouth Harbour entrance is the only suitable location for the new ferry as it would have problems getting round the corner
- Discussions have been held about going to Portland Port but this probably isn’t an option due to the constraints of the road network. Mr Fulford said he was 'nervous' of the drive time involved to Portland, particularly in the summer
Condor staying in Weymouth depends on Weymouth and Portland Borough Council raising £10m to upgrade berth 1.
It comes after the council spent more than £3 million fixing berth 3 in the harbour so Condor could resume operations last year.
Mr Fulford said the prospect of a new ferry ‘wasn’t on the table’ when works were done at berth 3. The works had to be done whatever happened, he said. The company started investigating the new vessel last year but refused to say when the council was informed.
Mr Fulford said Condor would ‘love’ to continue operating from Weymouth but that was dependent on whether the council is able to invest in upgrading the harbour, and the outcome of an environmental impact assessment which would be needed if works were given the go-ahead.
He said the council was responsible for investing in the port and suggested the authority could recoup the £10m from upgrading berth 1 from the new fees Condor would pay which would be in the region of £1m a year.
The current ferry operation currently generates a net income of around £225,000.
Asked if Condor would make a contribution to the works, Mr Fulford said it would be unusual for an operator to do that having already made an investment but he said it hadn’t been ruled out.
Mr Fulford said: “It’s an interesting and important time for the company. We have to ensure we do what we have to do which is to support our routes between the UK, Channel Islands and France. We’re a one trick pony in that respect.
“The important thing for us is that we invest in a safe, efficient and up to date fleet. Standing still is not an option.
“We have now got to the stage where an opportunity for reinvestment has presented itself.
“This opportunity is now very ‘live’. To make the investment we need the certainty of a licence so it’s very pertinent to be talking about this now.
“We hope to have this concluded by the end of June.”
Mr Fulford denied the council had been landed with a ‘bombshell’ over the company’s requirements or that it was ‘holding the town to ransom’ – a charge previously aimed at Condor.
“We’re saying we need to invest for the future to keep doing what we do, and we will do that from the appropriate port that provides modern facilities that make it safe to operate.
“We would love that to be Weymouth and hope that will be the case.”
He added that if harbour works went ahead at Weymouth Condor would need to ‘look at other options’ if the berth wasn’t ready by the 2015 sailing schedule next Easter.
Asked if Condor had an obligation to keep operating from Weymouth, Mr Fulford said: “Our obligation is to provide an effective lifeline link between the Channel Islands, France and the UK.
“The borough council has to do what is best for the council and the people of Weymouth and Portland and we would hope providing appropriate ferry port facilities is an important part of the strategy.
“I don’t recognise the language of being held to ransom, we’ve made it clear we’d love to sail from Weymouth and value our relationship with the town.
“We are happy to pay the market rate for suitable berthing facilities for a modern fleet.
“It would be appropriate for the port owner to provide appropriate facilities and hope that will be the case.”
Council working behind scenes
URGENT work has been going on behind the scenes at Weymouth and Portland Borough Council in case Condor sets sail.
Council chiefs have asked the government for funding to finance new berth works and have also applied for support through the Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership.
It has sought specialist legal advice to draw up a Harbour Revision Order timetable if berth 1 works go ahead and are discussing the issue with the Channel Islands’ Government to understand their position in agreeing a new 10-year deal.
However as a back-up plan the council has also approached other ferry companies to identify an alternative operator if Condor left town.