Cross-Solent Ferries

Pauline Latham Excerpts
Tuesday 26th March 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Pauline Latham Portrait Mrs Pauline Latham (in the Chair)
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I will call Bob Seely to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government support for cross-Solent ferry transport.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham.

I will come straight to the point: the relationship between the ferry firms and the people of the Isle of Wight is breaking down. The ferries are a genuine lifeline; we have no choice but to use them. There is no public service obligation. We need to get a better deal. I have produced a study of the ferries, which I think is the first major work on the ferries that has come out of the Island for 40 years. In it, I highlight how we can get a better deal for the ferries, some of the options for the firms and how we can get there.

Time is tight, so I will make as much progress as I can. The Island depends on three private ferry operators: Wightlink, Red Funnel and Hovertravel. Hovertravel is not really part of the picture, but Wightlink and Red Funnel are. Wightlink was privatised in 1984, and Red Funnel has always been in private hands. The firms’ services initially improved throughout the ’80s and ’90s, but they are now worsening, in part because of the private equity-style ownership model. I will return to that, because it is a constant theme.

In 2009, under new Labour, the ferries were given a clean bill of health, and we were told there was open competition between them. That was not true. For passenger services, there are two local monopolies in the west: between Yarmouth and Lymington and between Cowes and Southampton. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Minister here, as ever. The idea that people will travel 25 miles from Yarmouth to Ryde to cross four miles of water into Portsmouth in order to travel 35 or 40 miles around to Lymington again is nonsense. In Ryde, there is competition of sorts between Hovertravel and Wightlink, although not to the same destination—one goes to Southsea, and one goes to Portsmouth harbour. On the car ferries, there is an effective monopoly in the West Wight, again on the Yarmouth to Lymington route, and a duopoly for the rest of the Island, with Red Funnel pitched slightly below Wightlink’s extortionate prices—but it is not true that there is a free market among Isle of Wight ferries.

Barriers to entry are very high. I am trying to support two potential competitors into the market—a passenger ferry and a potential car ferry—but that is difficult, because the ferry firms also own the ports.