Open letter to Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely from 1,100-member Wightlink Users Group

'Thank you for taking the trouble of writing to one of our committee members.  We are really pleased that you too feel that we have a right to affordable and reliable ferries.

While we understand your concern about ensuring that we should protect our essential transport from disruption, we think that legislating for minimum service levels is entirely unnecessary. 

As far as we know, Wightlink staff have never been on strike causing the ferries to stop running. 

Isle of Wight County Press: The Wightlink Yarmouth ferry mid Solent.The Wightlink Yarmouth ferry mid Solent. (Image: Don Bellamy, IW County Press Camera Club.)

You (we think) have understood the main cause of most of the problems contributing to us not having affordable and reliable ferries when you say Wightlink, as a company, represent the unacceptable face of capitalism. 

Timetables that are designed for the convenience of the operator, and not the user, the financial asset stripping, the opaque management structure, the massive dividends paid to the shareholders, and the eyewatering renumeration paid to the senior management all ensure we have neither affordable or reliable ferries.

Over the last four years, over £50 million was paid in dividends to Wightlink’s parent company, Arca Shipping.

In 2022, in spite of Covid, £8 million was paid out in dividends.  A fraction of this reinvested in the company and used to lower fares would solve many of the problems.

You mention you have requested the Government is more involved in the event of future sales of ferry companies. 

As you probably know the way in which Wightlink has been sold in the past has loaded it with debt.  Why? 

Isle of Wight County Press: The Wight Light in Yarmouth Harbour.The Wight Light in Yarmouth Harbour. (Image: Mally Boo, IW County Press Camera Club.)

The money used to buy Wightlink is borrowed, when bought the debt is transferred to Wightlink (who have debts in the order of around £244 million). 

This debt ensures that the company pays no tax, and the interest on the debt is paid to lender, which of course in a round about way is itself. 

This is certainly going to happen again and I am interested to hear how you plan to be more involved.

You say you are keen to encourage a third car ferry operator to enter the market. 

Whilst this proposal sounds excellent, it is as we know an almost impossible geographical challenge. 

There is nowhere from which a third car ferry can operate without huge infrastructure costs and/or environmental consequences. 

Neither current ferry companies will share their terminals.  This is not a ‘free market’, there is only the pretence of competition.  We are stuck with a duopoly, and it needs to be recognised as one.  A third operator is a fantasy.

You suggest introducing a small tax for journeys starting on the mainland.  As already stated, Wightlink pay no tax. 

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Is it really reasonable in any way to expect travellers to not only pay through the nose to travel on the ferries and then to pay an additional tax as well?  The economy of the Island is crippled enough without deterring travellers further.

It sounds reasonable to assist with funding Islanders to travel to the mainland for medical treatment, it is unreasonable that the cost of the ferry is so high in the first place. 

Wightlink received a Government Lifeline Grant of £1.93 million over the last three years, they can well afford to offer free travel to those needing medical treatment.

I am in touch with a someone who lives in the constituency of Stephen Morgan MP, where Wightlink is based.  He travels to the Island often and wrote to him asking him who actually owns Wightlink.  The answer (within an impressive 48 hours) was:

look at this page : WIGHTLINK LIMITED overview. Under the “people” tab, there is information on "people with significant control". In this case, if you repeat this type of search for each company that comes up there, you will end up with two sets of owners:  
EAGLECREST MARINE TOPCO LIMITED persons with significant control
BASALT INFRASTRUCTURE PARTNERS LLP persons with significant control.
Having looked at this we discover that Eaglecrest is controlled by Jean-Guy Desjardins (Canadian), he is CEO of Fiera Capital Corp. based in Canada.  

Basalt is controlled by Colliers Investment Management UK Holdings, based in the UK, as well as individuals, Steven Lowry (British) and Robert John Gregor (Australian).

Colliers Investment Management UK Holdings Ltd is owned by Basalt Infrastructure Partners LLP! 

And as we know one third of Basalt Infrastructure Partners is owned by Colliers Investment Management!  So we have a circular relationship. 

A report written by A-To-There Consultants entitled, Evidence Based Assessment of CrossSolent Ferry Operations, in 2018 concluded that,  “Wightlink Ltd is part of a complex group structure, presumably established to minimise tax liabilities and maximise profits.

"The statutory accounts reviewed during this analysis comply with regulations and have received unqualified audit reports; however they are opaque to a lay reader and take advantage of all disclosure exemptions available.”

No one is in doubt as to why — and the economy and people of the Isle of Wight is the casualty.

We have of course approached Wightlink and invited them to talk.  We have found them to be ‘reluctant’ to consult with us.

We have a company that exists simply to provide transport across the Solent, yet we have no control over how much tax it pays, how it is operated, how much they charge, when they choose to operate, who the shareholders are, how much they are paid, they pay no council tax, no business rates, no harbour dues, and so it goes on, year after year. 

You say you are keen to work closely with the council to bring about changes for the good of Islanders. 

We are keen to know exactly what you are currently doing, what you actually intend to do and what outcomes you deem would be the minimum acceptable to Island residents.'

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