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The issue of cruises starting and finishing from the new Pier Head cruise terminal is still rumbling on. Last month the Minister responsible for shipping, Mike Penning, made a statement to the effect that Liverpool should repay £8.8m of UK government grant in order to relax the restriction on the use of the new terminal (actually now a five-years-old terminal) for ‘turnround’ cruises. Liverpool City Council did so immediately and the first cruise started from the Pier Head terminal on 29 May, just a week or so after the Minister made his statement.

However, Liverpool City Council had also received money from the EU towards the building of the terminal, and that’s the centre of the current row. Their view on this is that the EU grant was never encumbered with a restriction, that was only true of the UK Govt’s grant, and they therefore take the view that there’s no need to refer this to the relevant EU commissioner. However, John Denham, MP for Southampton Itchen, thinks otherwise and has several times said that he will raise the issue of a possible repayment of some or all of the EU money in respect of the Liverpool terminal with the EU Competition commissioner. His argument is that Southampton (where his constituents live) paid for their terminals without recourse to public money and that Liverpool’s use of public money for the facilities to mount turnround cruises amounts to a diminution of fair competition.

He’s now suggesting that the fact that Liverpool have had turnround cruises from the new terminal before climbing through this final hoop amounts to jumping the gun, and apparently Mike Penning (the minister) sort-of agrees with him. In a letter to Mr Denham the minister days: “The fact that Liverpool City Council has now pre-empted the Commission and commenced turnaround before a state aids decision has been made does leave it open, in the event of a finding of unlawful Aid, to the possibility of financial penalties, including repayment of grants from the European regional development fund“. However he also very quickly goes on to say “This is however a matter for the Commission“. So he’s not going to take any action over it.

My view is that while I can see John Denham’s point, I don’t think that these turnround cruises out of Liverpool will affect Southampton in any significant way. First, the UK cruise market is expanding, so it’s not the case that additional cruises from Liverpool will inevitably mean fewer cruises from Southampton. Secondly, these first cruises at least were due to leave from Langton Dock (in Bootle) anyway, so they’re definitely not taking anything from Southampton. And finally, I now understand that the terminal facilities (baggage handling, car parking, etc) can only handle ships of a maximum of 1500 passengers. I was misled by those pictures of Queen Mary 2 at the terminal; while it can take the bigger ships for day calls it can’t handle them for turnrounds. Therefore of all the ships that are currently based in Southampton for the greater part of the year, from Cunard, P&O, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Princess, only one of them – P&O’s Adonia – could actually do turnround cruises at Liverpool. This hardly looks like a threat to Southampton. Indeed, if it expands the number of people going on cruises there might some carry-over benefit to Southampton – sooner or later these new passengers may want to try a bigger ship, and to do that they’ll have to go to Southampton.

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