HC Deb 12 May 1998 vol 312 cc57-8W
Mr. Benton

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what progress has been made in relation to the Review of Trust Ports in Northern Ireland announced on 26 August 1997; and if she will make a statement. [41803]

Marjorie Mowlam

The Review of Trust Ports in Northern Ireland which I announced last year has now been concluded. In general, the review findings serve to reinforce the strategic importance of the commercial Trusts Ports in relation to the Northern Ireland economy. However the review has identified the need to broaden and extend the powers of the commercial Trust Ports and to ease the financial controls under which they currently operate, to enable them to meet the challenges of the future. Further detailed consideration will now be given to these recommendations with a view to bringing forward suitable legislation at the earliest opportunity.

During the course of the review, Belfast Harbour Commissioners submitted to the Department of the Environment (NI) a proposal for the future development of the Port of Belfast. This followed careful consideration by the Commissioners of a range of possible future options. BHC's preferred option envisaged the transfer of the Port to the private sector by means of a placed flotation and the establishment of a public/private partnership, through the retention by the Government of a golden share in the successor company.

The Harbour Commissioners consider that such a change to the status of the port is necessary to assure its long-term viability and competitive position, and offers the benefit of enabling the successor company to raise private equity and debt to finance its future development. The golden share arrangement is intended to ensure that the wider interests of the Northern Ireland economy are safeguarded.

The Department accepts that transfer of the port to the private sector and the establishment of a public/private partnership, as outlined in BHC's proposal, represents the best option for the future and will enable the port to realise its full commercial potential. Accordingly the Department has today conveyed to BHC its agreement, in principle, to the proposal (subject to certain conditions) and invited the Commissioners to further develop the proposal with a view to bringing forward a Scheme for the Department's detailed consideration. Under the Ports (NI) Order 1994, any such Scheme will be subject to public consultation.

There are no plans to change the current status of any other Trust Ports in Northern Ireland. However, following the review, in addition to widening the powers and easing the financial controls on the other commercial Trust ports, further consideration will now be given to improving their accountability by increasing District Council representation on the boards.