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I used to think the rivalry between Manchester and Liverpool was pretty sharp, but the “cruise wars” that have been raging this year between Liverpool and Southampton have put that ancient feud at least temporarily in the shade.
Hostilities between the two ports have been at fever pitch over Liverpool’s effort to win a chunk of the growing cruise liner business, of which Southampton has about two-thirds of the UK market.
Liverpool City Council opened a cruise terminal in 2007 on the city’s historic waterfront, funded by £17.8m in UK government and European grants on condition that it would be used only for mid-cruise visits. Now it wants to become a more lucrative “turnaround” location, where cruises start and finish.
An earlier bid was rejected by the Labour government in 2009, but now Liverpool is offering to pay back £5.3m of the grants over 15 years. Mike Penning, shipping minister, said he was “minded to remove” the condition and that Liverpool’s proposal “can be justified taking into account the prospective regeneration and other benefits to the Merseyside area”. The Department for Transport has held a consultation, with a decision due later this year.
The prospect has enraged authorities in Southampton, who say it would amount to unfair competition and misuse of public funds. They say Liverpool should pay all the grants back if it wants to change the conditions.
Joe Anderson, Liverpool council leader, has labelled Southampton “greedy”, “selfish” and “scared of losing their monopoly” of the cruise trade. Liverpool insists Southampton will not be hurt because business is growing. There have been accusations of hypocrisy because Southampton itself recently received £54m taxpayer funding towards a £60m rail freight link.
This is not a simple north-south spat, though. More than 10,000 people in cruise ports such as Tyne, Dover and Harwich as well as Southampton signed a petition objecting to Liverpool’s plan. Martin Callanan, a north-east Conservative MEP, said “these unfairly funded plans would take business away from fellow northerners”.
Liverpudlians, with their proud maritime history, believe it is a matter of when, not if, cruise turnarounds happen at the terminal. If the decision goes Liverpool’s way, opponents could still apply for a judicial review. Perhaps a gunboat battle off Land’s End would be more appropriate.
Can celebrity power save a factory? Young’s Seafood, running a 90-day consultation on the future of its Cromer Crab Company which threatens 230 jobs in the north Norfolk town, has invoked the wrath of Stephen “national treasure” Fry.
“Nooooo! Youngs to take Cromer Crabs out of Cromer? Inconceivable. Sign petition … Keep It Cromer,” the actor and author, who was brought up in Norfolk, posted to his 3.2m followers on Twitter. Delia Smith, celebrated chef and majority shareholder of Norwich City football club, also re-tweeted the petition.
Pressure from celebs and local campaigners prompted a Young’s executive to say it was “looking at ways to retain the processing of Cromer crab and lobster in Cromer”. Campaigners said that would secure only a small proportion of the jobs and pledged to fight on.
Established in 1980, the plant processes prawns, crab, lobster and other shellfish for supermarkets. Young’s Seafood, owned by Lion Capital, the private equity group, says it has been hit by rising costs, industry overcapacity and weak consumer spending. Operations could move to Grimsby or Scotland, where most of its 3,200 UK staff are based.
Campaigners are pushing the local council to bid for European Union “protected geographical indication” status for Cromer crabs, joining the likes of Melton Mowbray pork pies and the Cornish sardine – which would mean crabs caught by the town’s fishermen could not be processed elsewhere.
Almost 6,000 people have signed the petition. Crab costumes were worn at a weekend rally. To succeed, though, a solution to Young’s problems still needs to be found.
Oliver Letwin, the coalition’s other-worldly éminence grise, has caused some embarrassment by being pictured throwing sensitive papers into a park bin. Still, at least he was putting stuff into bins, not picking things out of them.