The recent vote by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council (DLR) effectively recommends that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport dissolve the Harbour Company and transfer its assets to the County Council. The right to do this is given to the Minister under Article 28 of the Harbours Act 2015, and, importantly, this action is strongly supported by the Nationals Ports Policy.
The debate in the Council Chambers showed that there is an appetite to bring the harbour under the auspices of the County Council, not only amongst the Councillors but also at senior management level. In recommending this course of action, Philomena Poole, DLR’s CEO, addressing the council, stated that this was an “opportunity to use government policy for the betterment of the county and to ensure the integration at a policy and development level of the harbour”.
However, there is the small question of who pays for the works that would put the harbour into a “taking in charge” condition, essentially that state where no capital works are required to prevent further deterioration of the infrastructure. Consultants employed by the County Council estimate this to be €33m, of which approximately €7m covers the outer piers and €8m is for repairing berth no 1 on the East Pier. Councillors were unanimous that the €33m was not something that the county council could or should underwrite and this hot potato was very firmly hurled towards national government. Ironically, recent damage to East Pier during Storm Emma highlighted how DLHC is unsustainable an entity.
There were strong opinions expressed during the debate about the role of the Harbour Company, none of them positive, not only concerning the Harbour Company’s recent progress or lack of it, but also about the non–cooperation with the consultants as they endeavoured to calculate the liabilities. Several referred to the “dysfunctionality” of the Harbour Company while Councillor John Bailey was particularly scathing of the Harbour’s approach noting that the Harbour Company “is dead, not even on life support.” He was to the forefront amongst Councillors concerned that the ‘snapshot’ provided by the consultants through the risk report fell short of the information that would be available in a due diligence report.
A number of motions were withdrawn before the final vote in the interest of getting the principal motion passed. One of these suggested that the Minister effectively impose a “cease and desist” order on the Harbour Company to restrict, inter alia, any transfer of assets and new leases or rental agreements. At present the Harbour Company are actively seeking expressions of interest in the Carlisle Pier regeneration, conducting a “market consultation” on the provision of a national watersport centre and entering a procurement process for the provision of floating homes in the Coal Harbour.
Another motion that was withdrawn was a proposal to create a Harbour Stakeholder’s Committee.
The activity in the Council Chamber begs the question where next? Those who were seeking to engage with the Harbour Company on current projects must be concerned about the longer term viability. With the future governance of the harbour in doubt, where do the current planning applications for developments on harbour lands fit in?
While the County Council vote is indicative of the intent of Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, it is perhaps only the beginning of the end and maybe even back to the drawing board for a new master plan for the harbour.
The council meeting heard that the decision to transfer is wholly reserved to the Minister for Transport.
Is it a bright new future or same old same old for the 200–year–old harbour?
Clearly the ball is now firmly in the Minister’s court.