Ports refuse to foot the bill
The port authorities of Antwerp, Ghent and Zeebrugge are prepared to pay a maximum 15% of the bill for new locks, claiming that more would endanger their competitive position. Representatives of the three ports appeared last week at hearings in the Flemish parliament to discuss the issue.
As traffic declines, Flanders’ three ports don’t want to pay for new locks
All three Flemish ports require new locks, which control maritime access to the harbours. The total price is estimated at more than €2 billion, which the government considers too high a burden for the taxpayer.
Minister-president Kris Peeters, whose portfolio includes port policy, is asking for 51% from Antwerp for a bill of €625 million. Negotiations with Ghent and Zeebrugge are still going on for their bills of €1 billion and €700 million, respectively. The Ghent lock, which is actually in the Netherlands, is also of importance to the port of Terneuzen in Zeeland. The Dutch government will co-finance the lock to the tune of 20%, or €200 million.
The Flemish parliament is considering a new port decree, which is expected address co-financing by the ports themselves. The document proposes the creation of a limited company covering all three ports, together with subsidiaries for each. Those would be responsible for raising private finance to meet the cost of the locks, once the contributions of the government and the port authorities was taken into account. Later, the port authorities would pay a fee to the limited company for the use of the locks.
Harbour traffic plummets
Harbour traffic in Antwerp fell in the first three months of the year by 20%, the biggest fall in 30 years, according to port director Eddy Bruyninckx. Tonnage fell from 42 million in 2008 to 37 million tonnes this year. The handling of non-containerised freight was particularly badly affected, with a fall of 31%. That sector, Bruyninckx said, “is especially labour-intensive. Employment in the port of Antwerp is now at an absolute low. We have never had so many unemployed dock workers.”
Traffic in Ghent harbour, meanwhile, fell by 24% over the same period, largely as a result of the problems of the steel industry. Traffic in steel and related products fell by a massive 67% but was balanced somewhat by increased traffic in foodstuffs, construction materials and petroleum products. No quarterly figures are available for Zeebrugge, but the situation there, where dependence on the auto industry is high, is not expected to be much better.