Civic chiefs in Southampton have slammed a bid by Liverpool to seize a chunk of the UK cruise industry as an “abuse of state aid.”
They have joined port bosses in objecting to plans to allow luxury liners that currently dock at Southampton to use Liverpool’s Cruise Liner Terminal as a base to start and end voyages.
A publicly funded £20m cruise terminal at the city’s historic Pier Head – once a gateway for millions of transatlantic passengers – has already given Liverpool a landing stage for calling megaliners.
Liverpool City Council now wants it to become a full “turnaround” terminal with baggage handling, customs and immigration although needs Department of Transport (DfT) approval as £9m of European Union funding was used to build it.
But there are fears cruise liners could be relocated from Southampton, which has 70 per cent of the UK cruise market.
Councillor Royston Smith, Tory Cabinet member of economic development, right, said Liverpool’s proposal was tantamount to an “abuse of state aid.”
He said Southampton’s recession defying cruise industry, which was vital to the local economy, bringing £1.2m per cruise ship visit, could be put at risk.
Cllr Smith said: “This is a private port competing with a public subsidy to do something similar. That simply isn’t fair.
“It’s not morally right that one city had been given a public subsidy to compete with another city.”
Associated British Ports, which spent £19m on a new Ocean Terminal in Southampton, claims the move would “distort” competition.
Southampton’s port director Doug Morrsion called for a “level playing field”.
He told the Echo: “We have no issue about competition.
In fact, it is healthy and that’s what this industry thrives on. But it should be a level playing field and no one gave us any money towards the £41m we have invested in Southampton in the past five years.
“We feel that if the (Liverpool) port authority, Peel – a billion pound industrial business, repaid the £20m grant then we could not object.
“The issue is one of taxpayers money being used. This city will lose out because of this taxpayer investment.”
The row over upgrading the status of the Liverpool terminal has sparked angry public reaction in Liverpool and Southampton.
Lib Dem run Liverpool council last night defended its position.
In a statement Councillor Gary Millar, Liverpool council’s tourism leader, said: “We believe that the creation of a full turnaround facility at Liverpool will benefit the cruise liner industry in the UK, as the city is uniquely positioned to attract business from outside of Europe.
“The application to the DfT has been made in response to calls from the industry and passengers and the city is keen to build on the success of the facility so far.”
He was unavailable to comment on Southampton’s objections.
Around 300 ships and one million passengers used Southampton last year while only 55 ships have visited Liverpool in the past two years, including 26 Royal Navy vessels.
A DfT spokesperson said it had been inviting comments from ports around the UK, who also offer cruise facilities, as part of an “informal consultation”.
The spokesman said new transport minister Paul Clark, who earlier this year confirmed plans for a two-stage hike in the tax on ships calling at UK ports, will make a decision “soon”.
One website post read: “We should raise an army amongst the peasants, march on Southampton and sack it! In the meantime we should refer to Southampton as ‘Sourhamtin’ in order to add to the foment.”
Another suggestion read: “The answer is simple, pay the money back to the DfT. They won’t do us any favours.
“Southampton gets 300 liners and we get 16, if we attract only a few more then the cruise liner terminal will surely make a profit and the money will have been well invested, mind you that would take foresight.”
Another agreed: “I think it would be reasonable to pay back the grant money then it’s a level playing field and no one can complain.”
One city newspaper columnist championing the move boasted Liverpool had a world famous backdrop at Pier Head to welcome cruise passengers while Southampton was “fundamentally a deep-water quay on a Hampshire mudflat.”