Indecision at Whitby left harbour board all at sea

Whitby Harbour
Whitby Harbour
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A DAMNING report by a council-led task force has laid bare the confusion and lack of leadership which blighted a harbour board charged with overseeing one of Yorkshire’s most historic ports.

It now faces a watershed in its operations with a major overhaul in the way Whitby harbour is governed being drawn up. It follows a series of failings identified in a pilot project set up three years ago to oversee the running of the port.

Scarborough Borough Council’s politicians have acknowledged that the Whitby Harbour Board has been plagued by problems including a lack of clarity about the role and responsibilities of the pilot project.

A report to be considered by councillors on Wednesday next week is now proposing to axe the harbour board and replace it with an expert advisory group, with the decision-making powers handed back to the council.

Scarborough Council’s cabinet member for harbours and the chairman of the harbour board, Coun Mike Cockerill, told the Yorkshire Post the running of the new structure had been one of the most challenging issues he had faced.

He added: “While there has been a lot of good work done, it has also had some major issues. It was not the best time to be launching a new pilot at a time we have had to make so many savings with the austerity measures, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

“It is clear that there have been some problems, and we do need to move forward so that is why the restructuring has been proposed. We will have to wait to see what the outcome of the meeting is and what shape the new structure will take exactly.”

The board was established as a means of governing Whitby harbour away from the council’s own decision-making process, as the famous port on the North Yorkshire coast faces up to a huge transition in its role.

While the town’s traditional fishing industry has been in steady decline in recent years, Whitby has been identified as one of the key locations to support the off-shore wind farm industry.

The world’s largest off-shore wind farm is due to be built nearly 80 miles off the Yorkshire coast at Dogger Bank to generate up to 10 per cent of the nation’s electricity.

The council approved the plans for the Whitby Harbour Board in February 2010 and it was seen as a potential blueprint for the running of Scarborough harbour as well.

Four years earlier, the Government had published a report setting out a management board model for the municipal sector to bring “expert representation to assist in areas such as commercial viability, environment and health and safety”.

It is estimated the Whitby Harbour Board has cost Scarborough Borough Council an additional £18,710-a-year to cover advertising for posts, training, room hire, secretarial and democratic support and members’ expenses.

The board was tasked with overseeing the finances of the harbour, but concerns were raised that money generated from car parking was not being invested into the port itself.

In the first full year of the board’s operation in 2011/12, Whitby harbour car parking income fell £140,000 short of the projected budget. The board could not afford to meet the shortfall, and the borough council had to step in to plug the financial black hole.

The council report prepared by the chairwoman of the scrutiny task group, Coun Jane Mortimer, stated it is “not unreasonable to conclude that the WHB pilot scheme has at times been a chastening experience for the members”.

It also highlights problems with delays in agreeing a memorandum of understanding for business plan and raising unrealistic expectations about the “independence” of the board, in terms of its assets and financial standing.

The report also criticises a failure to promote and raise awareness of the board and its role, and claims the borough council underestimated the amount of resources needed to give the pilot scheme the “optimum chance of success”.

Coun Mortimer admitted the review of the harbour board had been a “very challenging task”, but was adamant “no stone has been left unturned in reaching our final conclusions”.