Government had hoped to scoop £290m from sale of Port of Dover to highest bidder – rumoured to be Calais
Dame Vera Lynn can relax. The white cliffs of Dover, the most famous symbol of Britain’s indomitable wartime spirit, have been saved from the prospect of falling under French control.
The Port of Dover, which has sat at the foot of the cliffs since 1606, will remain forever England after the government scrapped plans to sell it off to the highest bidder – rumoured to be the local authority of Calais.
On Thursday thetransport minister Simon Burns bowed to public pressure and withdrew Dover from the auction, saving Europe’s busiest passenger port – which handles 13 million passengers and 5m vehicles, including lorries carrying £50bn of goods a year – for the nation.
The port had been destined for sale as part of the government’s mass sell-off of trophy assets, including the UK’s air traffic control system, the student loans company and the Tote bookmaker, to help cut the nation’s record £1.1tn debt.
The government had been hoping the port would fetch up to £290m for the Treasury but Burns withdrew the privatisation plans after warning that the scale of local opposition could jeopardise the sale price.
“The secretary of state also noted the strength of local opposition to the proposed sale and that this might create uncertainty about a sale at this time,” Burns said in a letter explaining the decision. “It is uncertain what price would be achieved in the current climate.”
More than 770 people and organisations had made formal representations opposing the sale, and more than 6,500 had signed three separate petitions against the privatisation of one of Britain’s most well-known landmarks. It also noted that in a local parish vote that 97.5% of residents opposed the sale.
The letter said key concerns were “security, immigration and its historic significance”.
In order to avoid the port falling into foreign hands some of the local residents had clubbed together to propose buying it for the community.
More than 12,000 people have bought a £10 share in the People’s Port Trust, which it said would see Dover “owned by people who love our country”. The trust has a string of celebrity supporters – including Lynn, who made Dover famous with her second world war song The White Cliffs of Dover.
Neil Wiggins, chairman of the trust, said he was “very, very pleased” with the decision that would “ensure Dover remains forever England”.
He said: “If you don’t own it, you can’t control it or the border. Private equity foreign ownership is not good for the UK.
“If it is lost to private equity it can be bought and resold, and who will answer for the history? What will happen to the white cliffs in the nation’s psyche?”
Dover’s Conservative MP, Charlie Elphicke, said the town’s “magnificent victory” saving the port for the nation was the “best Christmas present the people of Dover could have”.
He said: “The port of Dover is the gateway to our nation and should be forever England as much as Stonehenge and Buckingham Palace. The whole community is absolutely delighted that it won’t end up owned by the French or the Chinese or anyone else.
“Think of the port and the white cliffs and you think of freedom and victory over tyranny.”
However, the chief executive of the Port of Dover, Bob Goldfield, said local people would end up the biggest losers from the scrapping of the sale because it would have injected many millions of pounds into the community.
Goldfield said privatisation would have seen local people collect a £10m windfall, a guarantee of £1m a year for five years and £20m worth of shares in the port. The port, which has been owned by Dover Harbour Board since it was formed by royal charter in 1606 by James I, needed to be privatised to fund its development.
“We’re the busiest ferry port in Europe. At the end of the day we’ve got to be able to invest in infrastructure,” he said. “I’m surprised and disappointed, but life goes on.”
Goldfield said NM Rothschild, the investment bank the government appointed to advise it on the sale, had received “a lot of interest” from “a lot of international money” keen to buy it. Rumoured buyers included Pas-de-Calais, the French local authority that owns France’s biggest port, 21 miles away across the Channel, far and Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds and US and European private equity firms.
“I can’t name names, but it’s all academic now anyway,” Goldfield said.
The French might have lost out at Dover, but the commercial invasion has been successful in Ipswich, Glasgow and pockets of central London.
A host of British brands have fallen for that Gallic charm – or at least cash – the latest being Hamleys, which runs the world’s biggest toy shop in Regent Street, London.
Groupe Ludendo has just spent £60m buying the 250-year-old company, which has eight stores in the UK and outlets as far afield as Mumbai in India and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
Other luxury brands in London, such as Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, maker of the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress, are also at least half owned by the French – in their case the diversified conglomerate PPR.
Another Paris-based luxury goods group, LVMH, spent £300m chasing off competition from local rival, Pernod Ricard,to secure control of Glenmorangie, one of the best-known single malt scotch whisky producers.
And it is not just companies in the more glamorous parts of the economy that have opted to move ownership to the other side of the Channel. France Telecom, which already owned a stake in UK cable operator NTL, bought the UK mobile phone company Orange from Vodafone in 2000 for an eye-watering £25bn.
And the nuclear power generator British Energy, based in East Kilbride near Glasgow, was bought three years ago for £12.5bn and subsumed into EDF Energy. The combined Anglo-French firm is now the UK’s biggest producer of electricity and together the two companies provide power to a quarter of the country’s population.
Even more humble UK businesses, such as the East Anglia-based pharmaceutical maker, Fisons, have been acquired by the French, in this case Rhône-Poulenc.
Ipswich may have fallen, but Dover remains defiant – for now. Terry Macalister