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Mayday! Warning Of ‘Budget Crisis & Job Cuts’ At Thanet District Council Over Seaborne Freight

The chair of Ramsgate Action Group (RAG) has warned of dire Budget Consequences as a result of failure of due diligence by Council Leader Cllr Bob Bayford on Seaborne Freight, and has called for Bayford's immediate resignation.

Steve Coombes, a longtime campaigner for the Port of Ramsgate, said this could lead to a huge debt and redundancies if an agreement is not signed between the ports of Ostend and Ramsgate and Seaborne Freight by the 7th of February.

Ostend’s Mayor Bart Tommelien has even rebuffed the feasibility of operating from Ostend without financial guarantees that would not put the town's economy at risk of bankruptcy.

Mr Coombes claims that as a direct result of this, the local authority, which has recently been accused of making poor decisions, will have to inform staff of ‘serious impending cuts and redundancies in 2019/2020’. Local councillors could be forced to vote for these cuts and redundancies without being given enough time to scrutinise or revise the facts and figures, given to them in an 89 page document with just a few hours’ notice.

Thanet District Council owns the port of Ramsgate and is losing £2.5m a year due to lack of use, and recently spent a further £1.3m refurbishing the Link Bridge in anticipation of Seaborne Freight. Added to a recent £2m fine for banning the exports of livestock, and they have racked up a £20m loss in 6 years.

Conservative councillor for Kent County Council, Paul Messenger, has reinforced Steve Coombes point stating “I and many other local Conservative members have called for Cllr Bayford to instigate due diligence on Seaborne Freight. I was the first to call for this to be done in April 2018”

This isn’t the first time Cllr Bayford has been accused of a haphazard approach regarding decisions and proper scrutiny of ferry operators at the Port, after making the decision to appoint TransEuropa Ferries back in 2004 - which left the council with a £3.4 million budget black hole when it ceased operations in April 2013. With claims now circulating that the Council has agreed a £100 million pound agreement with the shipless company, Bayford is increasingly coming under fire about Seaborne Freight.

Steve Coombes has written an open letter on the ‘Nothing Concrete at Port Ramsgate’ a Ramsgate Action Group campaign, Facebook page, stating:

“If no agreement is signed between Ramsate/Ostend and Seaborne Freight by Feb 7th, Thanet District Council will be in crisis. As just a few hours later, the Corporate Management Team will have to inform all TDC staff of serious impending further cuts and redundancies in 2019/20.

And a few hours after that, the Corporate Management Team will have to force councillors to endorse those cuts and redundancies when the full Council has to fulfil its legal duty to set a “balanced budget” at 7pm on Feb 7th.

It will be a crazy day full of crazy and stupid anomalies. Not least, because when councillors come to pass this budget, they will only have a few hours to understand any revisions to around 89 pages of complicated (and baffling) accountancy-speak which no one could understand in the first place.

But this crazy day will be a culmination of a crazy year of bizarre and crazy negotiations between Seaborne Freight and Thanet District Council. Primarily because the council flatly refused to do any kind of due diligence on this company.

Even though, the merest glance by a qualified accountant at the records that are freely available from Companies House would have shown that any responsible public body should not even have been talking to such directors, let alone negotiating an alleged £100 million agreement with them.

Seaborne Freight had no ships, no money, no premises, no offices apart from drop boxes at service addresses; no investors, no employees and the company was capitalised at just £55, with anything from a £1.4 million to 400k debt allegedly owing to the directors, who themselves had a history of serial bankruptcy/defaulting, stretching back for more than 10 years.

Nevertheless, when Councillor Bayford became leader in March 2018, he immediately declared in public that he took full responsibility for the port and awarded himself the portfolio.

By August 2018, Councillor Bayford went one step further and publicly declared he was personally going to lead the negotiations with Seaborne Freight.

So, the situation the council and district will find itself in on Feb 7th is wholly Councillor Bayford’s fault. Made all the more blameworthy, because Councillor Bayford has been here before when Transeuropa went bust owing TDC £3.8 million.

In both instances, Councillor Bayford made the same easily avoidable mistake. He refused to do proper due diligence (or insist that it was done) on a company that was crying out to have its financial credentials checked.

So, this is not a party or a political issue. It is the result of the folly, delusions and stubborn stupidity of one man.

If at any time since March 2018, Councillor Bayford had done due diligence on Seaborne Freight, TDC’s budget would not be in the crisis it faces today.

If at any time since March 2018, Councillor Bayford had faced up to reality and stood the port down from readiness to receive ferries that were never going to arrive, TDC could have saved the council taxpayers of Thanet millions of pounds of further losses on the port in 2018.

Throughout the year, Councillor Bayford was urged both publicly and privately to take just these steps. And throughout the year, Councillor Bayford was warned both publicly and privately of the disastrous consequences which would follow if he did not take such steps.

And it was local Conservative politicians who led the way on this.

From May 2018 TDC Councillor Beverly Martin and KCC Councillor Paul Messenger were practically begging Councillor Bayford to do due diligence on Seaborne Freight and consider other options to stem the losses on the port.

While a whole raft of prospective Tory candidates and individual Conservative party members made the same point in meetings and written questions to TDC.

And local Tory MP, Craig Mackinlay has a long record stretching back to before his election of publicly advocating alternatives like a Marina Village Development to solve the losses on the port.

But Councillor Bayford refused to listen to them.

So, in October 2018, the ruling group of TDC Conservative Councillors were so worried by Councillor Bayford’s performance and behaviour that they attempted to pass a motion of no confidence in his leadership. That motion only fell by 12 votes to 8.

But Councillor Bayford was so set on this march of folly, he would not even tell his own Conservative cabinet anything about his negotiations with Seaborne Freight. And he’s still not really telling them anything now.

So, if an agreement isn’t reached on Feb 7, the cuts and jobs losses which follow will not be down to any party, but to the sins of omission and commission committed by one single elected member.

A council leader who still insists on pursuing a fantasy ferry scheme, rather than making the hard-working ordinary staff at TDC who are going to lose their jobs and the vulnerable people in our community who are going to get their services cut his first and immediate priority.

So, the Ramsgate Action Group demands Councillor Robert Bayford accepts the responsibility he took upon his own shoulders in March 2018 and calls for his immediate resignation.

This action is a duty Councillor Bayford owes to himself, to his party and to every voter, resident and council taxpayer in Thanet. And it is a duty Councillor Bayford should have fulfilled long ago if he had a single shred of personal integrity left in his political locker."

Yours sincerely,

Steve Coombes,

Chair of the Ramsgate Action Group

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