One of the companies contracted by the government to charter ferries in the event of a no-deal Brexit does not own any ships, has not previously operated a ferry service and is not planning to do so until close to the UK’s scheduled departure date from the European Union, it has emerged.
Concerns have been raised about Seaborne Freight, which was awarded a £13.8m contract to operate freight ferries from Ramsgate to the Belgian port of Ostend if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, after a councillor for the Kent port queried whether it would be possible to set up the new service by the scheduled Brexit date.
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Seaborne Freight hopes to operate freight ferries from the Kent port from late March, beginning with two ships and increasing to four by the end of the summer.
But Paul Messenger, a Conservative county councillor in Ramsgate, questioned whether the government had carried out sufficient checks on the firm, telling the BBC: “It has no ships and no trading history so how can due diligence be done?
“Why choose a company that never moved a single truck in their entire history and give them £14m? I don’t understand the logic of that.”
Seaborne was established two years ago and has been in negotiations about running freight ferries between Ramsgate and Ostend, but no services are currently running. Narrow berths in the port mean there are few suitable commercial vessels available.
In a statement, the company said it had been working since 2017 on plans to reintroduce ferry sailings from Ramsgate from early 2019.
The business has been “financed by the shareholders” during a development phase involving “locating suitable vessels, making arrangements with the ports of Ostend and Ramsgate, building the infrastructure – such as bunkering – as well as crewing the ferries once they start operating”.
It added: “It was intended to start the service in mid-February but this has now been delayed until late March for operational reasons.
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“This coincides with the Department for Transport’s Freight Capacity Purchase Agreement with Seaborne which is part of their preparations to increase ferry capacity in the unlikely event of a no-deal Brexit.”
Ramsgate has not had a cross-Channel service since 2013, when operators TransEuropa collapsed.
The French operator Brittany Ferries and the Danish company DFDS were also awarded government contracts to ease pressure on Dover in the event of no deal, allowing almost 4,000 more lorries a week to come and go.
A Department for Transport spokesman added: “This contract was awarded in the full knowledge that Seaborne Freight is a new shipping provider, and that the extra capacity and vessels would be provided as part of its first services. As with all contracts, we carefully vetted the company’s commercial, technical and financial position in detail before making the award.”
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