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Wisbech Port charges may rise by 25 per cent to ‘reduce significant deficit’

Fenland Council says charges where they have discretion to amend are proposed to rise by around 6.7 per cent

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Fenland District Council – which is freezing its council tax for the coming year – will, however, be raising fees and charges for many of its services by 6.7 per cent. And in the case of Wisbech Port some charges will rise by 25 per cent “in order to begin to reduce the significant deficit being incurred on the port operations”.

Peter Catchpole, corporate director and chief finance officer Mark Saunders, chief accountant, set out the proposals in a report to be considered by the council’s overview and scrutiny committee on January 15.

In a separate report the two officers say a draft budget for 2024/25 “highlights the significant financial challenges the council faces over the medium term and the scale of savings required”.

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In respect of charges, their report says the current and forecast economic climate dictates that the council’s charges have to remain sympathetic to local people’s ability to pay “whilst at the same time maximising income to the council”.

Wisbech Port where some charges likely to rise by 25 per cent “in order to begin to reduce the significant deficit being incurred on the port operations”.

Wisbech Port where some charges likely to rise by 25 per cent “in order to begin to reduce the significant deficit being incurred on the port operations”. Picture by Terry Harris.

They have arrived at a 6.7 per cent rise for charges based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation at September 2023 which was 6.7 per cent even though it “currently stands at 3.9 per cent (November 2023), reducing significantly over the last twelve months from a rate of 10.7 per cent (November 2022)”.

Their rationale is that as many of the council’s contractual arrangements use the September CPI for increases, “this has been reflected, where appropriate in the proposals for increases in 2024/25.

“The council is experiencing significant inflationary pressures relating to staff costs, energy and fuel costs, contract costs and supplies.

“Consequently, the majority of charges where we have discretion to amend are proposed to increase by around 6.7 per cent i.e. generally, in line with the September 2023 CPI, with the exception of the statutory and commercial charges at Wisbech Port which are proposed to increase by 25 per cent in order to begin to reduce the significant deficit being incurred on the port operations”.

The proposals, says their report, would, at current usage levels, generate further income from fees and charges of an estimated £211,480.

No increase in fees and charges had been included in the draft budget report “so this amount would reduce the current estimated shortfall for 2024/25”.

Wisbech Port where some charges likely to rise by 25 per cent “in order to begin to reduce the significant deficit being incurred on the port operations”.

Wisbech Port where some charges likely to rise by 25 per cent “in order to begin to reduce the significant deficit being incurred on the port operations”. Picture by Terry Harris.

The report says the estimated additional income assumes current usage/activity levels are maintained for 2024/25.

“Any reduction in the level of increases proposed or reduced usage/activity levels will reduce the estimated additional income,” says the report.

“Consequently, alongside the proposed increases, the emphasis is also on maintaining or increasing usage/activity levels in order to maximise income.

“However, of this additional income, around £100,000 is a result of the 25 per cent increase in port dues which is entirely dependent on achieving the estimated ship numbers visiting the port.

“Consequently, this additional income is far from certain and should be treated with caution.”

The report reminds councillors that Fenland District Council is the statutory harbour authority for the River Nene from Wisbech to the Bar Flat Buoy in The Wash.

Wisbech Port where some charges will rise by 25 per cent “in order to begin to reduce the significant deficit being incurred on the port operations”.

Wisbech Port where some charges likely to rise by 25 per cent “in order to begin to reduce the significant deficit being incurred on the port operations”.

The council is allowed to set charges to recover costs over a period of time, a principle re-iterated by the Department for Transport who have previously emphasised that there should not be any ‘substantial or continuing subsidy from a local authority’s general funds to its port’.

The report says: “These costs should be recovered from the charges levied on ships visiting Wisbech and Sutton Bridge using the harbour authority/pilotage service.

“However, as a result of a continuing significant downturn in the number of ships visiting Port Sutton Bridge (and to a lesser extent Wisbech) over the past few years, the income received falls significantly short of the costs to provide this service.”

The officers note that a review of the port operations is ongoing in order to identify sustainable options over the medium and long-term.

This will include a re-assessment of the costs of providing the service together “with a charging policy which seeks to recover costs from the lower number of ships visiting the port.

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“This will inevitably lead to a substantial increase in charges unless shipping numbers increase significantly.

“As an interim measure, pending the outcome of the review and in order to begin to reduce the deficit in operating these services, it is proposed to increase the statutory dues by 25 per cent.”

The committee will hear that the income from commercial fees (mainly wharfage dues at Wisbech) falls significantly short of the costs of providing these services.

These services form part of the current review of port operations.

Wisbech Port where some charges will rise by 25 per cent “in order to begin to reduce the significant deficit being incurred on the port operations”.

Wisbech Port where some charges likely to rise by 25 per cent “in order to begin to reduce the significant deficit being incurred on the port operations”.

“Based on the limited number of ships visiting Wisbech, the fees for the commercial operation would need to increase substantially in order to recover costs,” says the report.

Council leader Chris Boden says if the draft budget for 2024/25 is approved next month, it will be the sixth consecutive year of no rises in Fenland’s share of the council tax.

Council leader Chris Boden says: “Almost every other principal council has raised its council tax over the past six years, and of the few which haven't raised their council tax, none can match Fenland's two per cent reduction in that period.”

Council leader Chris Boden says: “Almost every other principal council has raised its council tax over the past six years, and of the few which haven’t raised their council tax, none can match Fenland’s two per cent reduction in that period.”

“Almost every other principal council has raised its council tax over the past six years, and of the few which haven’t raised their council tax, none can match Fenland’s two per cent reduction in that period,” he says.

“Councillors believe that the burden of providing cost-efficient services should fall on the council itself, a long way before it falls on our residents.”

FACT FILE

Fenland District Council says that some of the fees and charges are set centrally by government and other bodies and apply to all local authorities. It has no discretion in the setting of the following fees:

1: Licensing Fees issued under the Licensing Act 2003 and Gambling Act 2005

2: Electoral Registration

3: Environmental Health – Process Authorisation Fees and Ship Sanitation Certificates

4: Planning Fees

New scale of charges

1: Cemeteries Service

2: Commercial and Chargeable Household Waste Services

3: Markets and Fairs (to rise by around 6%-7% – The Showman’s Guild had requested that the fees for fairs be frozen).

4: Travellers Sites

5: Homeless Persons Accommodation

*Leisure services are excluded since these charges are implemented by Freedom Leisure who manage all four Fenland sites.

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