The public inquiry to decide whether the Sandbanks Ferry company can increase the price of its tolls, heard the views of the National Trust on the third day of proceedings.
The revised application by the ferry company seeks to increase the cost of a single trip by a car on the ferry from £4.50 in 2021, rising to £6.75 by 2032.
The National Trust, represented by its Purbeck general manager, Tracey Churcher put forward proposals to create a £2 fare for regular users and to explore the options to increase the number of ferry users at quieter times by offering lower fares to incentivise more people to take the ferry rather than driving round.
Increase the number of users rather than rising prices
She argued that this would enable the ferry company to achieve more income by increasing the number of users, rather than rising prices.
Tracey Churcher admitted that these were not fully worked out and costed proposals but more to stimulate discussion with the ferry company to take a different approach to achieve its desired outcome.
“Creates issues for us as an employer”
She explained why it was important to offer lower fares to regular ferry users:
“On average, 70 percent of our staff live on the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole side of the peninsula and this does create issues for us as an employer in Studland. We lose people at the interview stage when they realise the additional costs associated with working in Studland and many stay for only one season or leave when they can gain employment elsewhere.
“Although we welcome the discount scheme suggested by the proposal – it’s good that it has been recognised but we still feel that this does not go far enough to make it more affordable for our staff.”
In an earlier submitted document the National Trust researched other similar ferry operations
- Dartmouth Higher Ferry – One off cost £11.50 return / regular user cost £1.55 single
- Dartford Crossing – One off cost £2.50 single / regular user cost £20 a year or £10 for 50 crossings, plus 20p for each additional crossing
- Falmouth (Falmussel) – One off cost £7 single / regular user cost £2.30 single
- Tamar-Torpoint – One off cost £2 single / regular user cost £1 single
- Cowes Floating Bridge – One off cost £2.40 single / regular user cost £1.80 single
Commenting on how the Sandbanks Ferry’s tolls compared, Tracey Churcher said:
“Looking at some reasonable comparators and I accept they are not perfect, the discount price is an average 39.5 percent of the full fare for a single crossing.
“Currently for the ferry company, the maximum discounted price (for a car) is a £3.60 ticket, which is 76 percent of the full fare of £4.50. The proposal would by 2032 take the one off cost to £6.75 with a maximum discounted rate of £4.59 – which is still 68 percent of the full fare price.”
Cars and bikes
Moving onto the discussion surrounding cars and bikes, Tracey Churcher welcomed the support by the ferry company and the consortium of councils (Dorset Council, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council and Swanage Town Council) to freeze the £1 fare for foot passengers and cyclists:
“We think that is a good and positive thing but we do know however that the use of bike or foot is not always a practical option for many users. The main population centres are 10 miles apart and actually taking that out of the equation, many of our staff have childcare responsibilities to drop off and pick up children, before and after their working day.
“Families visiting National Trust sites may have at least one member who is unable to be based on foot or bike and in our experience, people visiting the beach generally arrive loaded with equipment which ensures they get full enjoyment from a day out. Sadly this year many of them, leaving it behind on the return journey but that is another matter.”
Commenting on the evidence from Dorset Council’s head of highways, Jack Wiltshire regarding creating safe cycling routes from the ferry to Studland, Swanage and Corfe Castle, Tracey Churcher welcomed his commitment to the idea. She said:
“We really would like to see the green infrastructure developed and improved and built upon in the next 12 years – that would be a great thing.”
Questioned the ferry company’s valuation of its assets
Earlier in the evidence from the National Trust’s senior estate manager for Dorset and Wiltshire, Mark Street had questioned the ferry company’s valuation of its assets, suggesting that the ferry company’s 2015 valuation was not only out of date but too high.
The importance of this figure is that this is the basis for the ferry company judging whether its investment is receiving a ‘reasonable return’. The higher the figure the more they could expect to receive as a return.
Mark Street also challenged the ferry company’s assertion that it had legal rights over Ferry Road similar or akin to freeholder rights. This was clearly a source of dispute between the two parties.
“We’re neighbours with the ferry company”
At the conclusion to her evidence, Tracey Churcher said:
“We’re neighbours with the ferry company and we do have differences of opinion on matters, that is very much clear. We wish to underline that we really do seek a positive working relationship and there are some issues that will be outstanding between us following this inquiry.
“We would just like to say that actually we seek to resolve those in an amicable manner – with grown up conversation to see if there is common meeting ground.”
The inspector then swiftly moved onto the closing statements from the four main parties.
Studland Parish Council
First was the closing statement from the Studland Parish Council. Its key points presented by the parish council’s chair, Nick Boulter were that the proposed increased tolls were well ahead of inflation, the rate of return sought was excessive, the accuracy of the valuation of the company’s assets was doubtful, the ferry replacement reserve wasn’t adequately ring fenced and that the ferry company and the consortium of local councils had both ignored the needs of local residents, businesses and employees.
Nick Boulter concluded:
“The current toll levels are more than adequate to meet the ferry company’s current requirements… For this and all the reasons above, we call on the Inspector to reject the toll applications from both the ferry company and the consortium, and suggest the Inspector invite them to return – after a year – with more credible proposals.”
The closing statement of the National Trust was presented by its Purbeck Estate general manager, Tracey Churcher. Her main point was a wish for the ferry company to explore the commercial opportunity to increase the usage of the ferry and consequently generate more income through the promotion of an affordable charging structure, which does not have a negative impact on those least available to afford it or need to use it most frequently.
She also supported the green proposals, raised concerns over the ferry company’s 2015 valuation of its assets and concluded:
“The National Trust looks after land around the ferry in perpetuity and recognises the ferry company as a key local partner. It is important to us that an appropriate long-term approach to the future of the ferry and the beautiful natural environment in which it operates is achieved.”
Consortium of councils comprising Dorset Council, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council, and Swanage Town Council
The legal representative for the consortium of councils, Joshua Dubin said that now the ferry company had adopted much of its suggested schedule of increased tolls and the freezing of prices for cyclists and foot passengers, that its primary concerns had been addressed with the exception of the final toll price for cars in 2032.
He said that the toll for cars in 2032 should be no more than £6.50 and not £6.75 as proposed by the ferry company.
Joshua Dubin said that the consortium believed that the National Trust’s desire to see some form of off-peak scheme combined with ‘local’ discounts had much to recommend it in principle but could not be fully endorsed as it was not a complete proposal, however it could inform future discussions.
He cited further reservations about the level of dividend payments, the value of the ferry company’s assets, and the ring fencing of the ferry replacement fund, but concluded:
“The consortium contends that it is proper to allow an increase, but only insofar as any such increase is incremental as in the company’s revised proposal and only where the final, 2032 charge for a single car journey is no more than £6.50.”
Sandbanks Ferry company
The legal representative for the Sandbanks Ferry company, Paul Reynolds rebutted the criticisms of the ferry company’s proposals by the objectors and said that the application was very different from the application rejected in 2018. He said:
“The company has made a very significant change and has now prioritised the ferry replacement fund and it will only consider paying a dividend when it has performed well. This is a real and meaningful change as in the last three years no dividends have been paid. Moreover there is now a fair timeline set out for the replacement of the vessel and this has been based on expert evidence which has stood up to scrutiny.
“The return made by the company under the projections, is significantly less than can be made in many other, arguably less risky investments. There are significant risks in the company which the last three years demonstrates.
“All taken together the toll proposal advanced, achieves the three key objectives of allowing not too little nor too much for the maintenance and working of the business, the building of the reserve and where appropriate a reasonable return.”
Following the presentation of the four closing statements the inspector adjourned the inquiry. She will now consider all the evidence and deliver her decision in writing in due course.
- Read the full closing statement of Studland Parish Council
- Read the full closing statement of the National Trust
- Read the full closing statement of the consortium of councils comprising Dorset Council, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council, and Swanage Town Council
- The closing statement of the Sandbanks Ferry Company is not yet publicly available
- All the papers and documents relating to the inquiry are on the Sandbanks Ferry website