Why defence of Dover could put bidders in deep water

When senior managers of the UK’s Port of Dover on the Kent coast handed a request to the previous Labour government for voluntary privatisation, they were probably blissfully unaware of the passions such a move might conceivably provoke.

After all, their view was that a sale expected to fetch around £350 million (€419 million; $540 million) would enable them to escape borrowing restrictions imposed by the port’s status as a trust port and allow much-needed investment in a new, second terminal. This investment, they reasoned, would also benefit the local and national economies.  

But with the second public consultation over the asset’s proposed sale having just been completed under the new coalition government, they can be under no illusions now regarding the potential for public sensitivity to be offended. 

Some observers appear to be horrified at the prospect of Northern Europe’s busiest ferry terminal passing into foreign ownership. Despite not even having been confirmed as an interested party, there has been speculation in various media reports that Nord-pas-de-Calais regional council – owner of Calais port, which sits opposite Dover  on the other side of the Channel – might be involved in a bid. And this speculation alone has been enough to induce some sputtering indignation.

As one animated blogger put it: “I can’t help but ask whether the French would agree to us buying Boulogne. I suspect not and it is worth remembering that the Chirac Government declared Danone yoghurt a strategic national asset to block a hostile bid from Nestle many years ago. Yes yoghurt!”

Because of these worries, there is talk of a consortium of investors being formed to keep ownership in the hands of the local community – an initiative that has led to talk of a “people’s port”.  This inititiave has claimed the support of 93-year-old Dame Vera Lynn, an enormously popular singer during the Second World War, whose hits included “The White Cliffs of Dover”.

Dame Vera told the BBC: “I would support the campaign for the local people to manage it [the Port of Dover]. It was such an important scene for the boys who were going away [to war] and when they came back.”

The campaign is being spearheaded by local Conservative Member of Parliament Charlie Elphicke, who, also speaking to the BBC, said: “Dover is the gateway to England and if it’s not going to remain in the hands of the nation it should remain in the hands of the community.”   

At this point, it is not known whether there may be interest from infrastructure funds in the asset. If there is, they would be well advised to tread carefully.