POLITICIANS in the north east have hit out at council leaders in Liverpool for jumping the gun by welcoming cruise liners to their port despite not getting government approval first.
Fears have been raised in North Tyneside that more cruise ships visiting Merseyside could hit trade at the Port of Tyne’s ferry terminal in North Shields.
Last week, ministers told Liverpool City Council it would have to pay back a government grant – either as a lump sum of £8.8m or £12.6m phased over 15 years – before its ferry terminal could bid for cruise ship custom and act as a turnaround port.
But on Tuesday, council leaders and port bosses held a celebration to mark the Mersey’s first cruise departure in 40 years despite no money having been refunded yet.
The north west council held a city-wide celebration, including having church bells ringing out across Merseyside, to welcome the Ocean Countess, a regular visitor to the Port of Tyne.
That has sparked calls in the north east for an investigation amid claims that the event was in breach of the law.
North east Conservative MEP Martin Callanan has long called for Liverpool’s council to pay back both its government and European Union grants, saying its failure to do so is unfair on commercial operations such as the Port of Tyne.
“This launch should not have gone ahead – pure and simple,” he said. “The European Commission is yet to decide whether state aid clearance should be granted and how much of the EU grant should be repaid.
“This is totally irresponsible behaviour from Liverpool, which is acting inappropriately and in total breach of the original grant conditions.
“The commission must ensure that every penny of taxpayers’ money, including that administered through the European Regional Development Fund, is paid back.
“Tuesday’s illegal launch should not have been allowed to take place until that point had been reached.
“By going ahead regardless, Liverpool is deliberately ignoring a legal agreement, and the UK government, as well as the commission, should have made sure this did not happen.
“It is a slap in the face to the Port of Tyne and the north east.
“It is also two fingers to the rule of law.
“I hope the government takes a very dim view of Liverpool City Council having already committed the most serious breach of the terms proposed.”
Andrew Moffat, chief executive at the Port of Tyne, said: “Our view remains the same as that of the British Ports’ Association – that all public money should be repaid before the terminal begins to accept turnaround cruise calls.
“We welcome the directive that the UK grant must be repaid and await the perspective of the European Commission on removal of the relevant restrictions.
“We are surprised that Liverpool has moved to pre-empt that outcome.”
North Tyneside MP Mary Glindon has been in discussions with Transport Minister Mike Penning and is writing to the Department of Communities and Local Government to demand answers.
She said: “The whole thing is a slap in the face for the Port of Tyne.
“Liverpool are just blatantly disregarding what they’ve been told. They haven’t got formal clearance to do this.
“The audacity of Liverpool City Council just beggars belief.”