New Mersey Ferry commissioned – amid claims Laird will miss out on build contract

Current Mersey Ferry Snowdrop

Liverpool City Region Mayor, Steve Rotheram, has announced the commissioning of the first new Mersey Ferry in more than 60 years.

It is expected that the new ferry will be built at the Birkenhead shipyard of Cammell Laird, supporting jobs, apprenticeships and development opportunities for the region.

However, this is disputed by trade union, Unite, which claims the ferry will be built in the Netherlands, with only minimal work carried out at Laird.

Mayor Rotheram said the multimillion-pound project will “ensure that the iconic Ferry Cross the Mersey will continue to be enjoyed by generations to come.”

He said: “The Mersey Ferries are not only a vital transport link between communities in the Liverpool City Region, they’re also an important part of our identity.

“They’re well-loved by both residents and tourists alike, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to our area each year. But, as the current vessels are older than the Gerry and the Pacemakers song that helped make them world famous, they are becoming harder and harder to maintain and definitely in need of an upgrade.

“We’re making a significant investment in one brand new greener, more energy-efficient and one upgraded vessel to ensure that the iconic Ferry Cross the Mersey will continue to be enjoyed by generations to come.”

He added: “It’s fantastic news for the region, and a fitting way to continue the legacy of Gerry Marsden and the Mersey Ferries. There have been boats crossings the Mersey since the 12th century and, thanks to our investment, here they’ll stay…”

Last year, the combined authority took the decision to pause the procurement process for a new vessel due to market pressures resulting from both Brexit and COVID.

However, following further conversations with bidders a solution has been found that will enable a modern, greener new ferry to be commissioned.

The new ferry will be designed to provide passengers with greater comfort, accessibility and an overall improved experience, in line with feedback received during consultation in 2018. There are also plans for extensive upgrade works on one of the existing vessels, to boost its performance and reliability.

Focusing on the Mersey Ferries’ popularity as a major visitor attraction, it will be used for a variety of events and river cruises while also maintaining its role as a key part of the Liverpool City Region public transport system.

Janette Williamson, leader of Wirral Council and Deputy Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, said: “It’s fantastic news that there will be a brand new Mersey Ferry that is set to be built here on the Wirral.

“This decision will bring huge benefits to the Liverpool City Region whilst safeguarding the vital cross-river link the ferries provide for generations to come.”

Subject to contract, the combined authority said it is expected that the project will see Wirral-based shipbuilders Cammell Laird work with Dutch naval engineering firm Damen on the build of a new Mersey Ferry.

Laird has a long heritage with Mersey Ferries, having built 15 of the vessels dating back to 1836 as well as well as helping to maintain the current fleet.

Headquartered in the Netherlands, Damen is one of the largest naval engineering firms in the world, operating 35 shipyards across five continents.

The combined authority said the potential collaboration between the two companies should help deliver employment and development opportunities for workers in the city region, as well as tapping into international expertise and delivering value for money for local taxpayers.

David McGinley, chief executive of Cammell Laird, said: “Cammell Laird have long been a proud part of the Mersey Ferries story and would be delighted for this to continue into the future. We are very close to agreeing the final contract arrangements and look forward to helping to deliver a new Mersey Ferry for the people of our city region.”

The building of a new ferry and upgrade works to one of the existing vessels are the latest investments made by the combined authority as part of its 20-year Mersey Ferries strategy, with others including the multimillion-pound upgrade works at Seacombe Ferry Terminal and funding for the Eureka! Science + Discovery attraction.

This agreement is subject to final negotiations and contract award.

But trade union Unite claims the combined authority has granted much of the work to build the ferry to Daman, describing this as “a complete betrayal of the local Cammell Laird workforce”.

It said despite the UK leaving the European Union, government rules forced the work to be tendered across Europe, and the contract has been awarded to the Daman shipyard in the Netherlands.

It said Cammell Laird will only undertake the refurbishment of one of the existing ferries and complete some final work on the new ship.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham, said: “This is a complete betrayal of a local and highly skilled workforce, it defies belief that a new Mersey ferry won’t be built on the river the ship will serve.

“This is a wholesale failure of the Government’s procurement policy, which continues to undermine strategic British industries and threatens jobs and skills.”

Unite regional officer, Ross Quinn, said: “Workers at Cammell Laird are today angry and frustrated. Once again they are being forced to pick up the scraps. They clearly understand the value of employing people to recycle the investment in the community where the ferry will operate and taxpayers’ money has come from as opposed to sending up to £15m abroad.

“The workers want the Government to explain how they can let this happen at a time when we’re told every penny is a prisoner.”

Later in the day, Mayor Rotheram and six council leaders of the Liverpool City Region, issued a statement, saying: “As city region leaders we have tried at every turn to ensure that we use the powers we do have to squeeze as much local value, investment and opportunity as possible for the city region economy when we procure major infrastructure projects, in line with our Social Value Framework.

“We understand Unite’s frustrations with the Government’s restrictive procurement laws which constrain the way public bodies are able to tender for projects such as the Mersey Ferries and other large scale infrastructure investments. Especially given the Government’s promises about procurement during the Brexit referendum.

“As public servants, we have a duty to ensure that we spend taxpayers’ money in a way that delivers the best possible outcomes for local businesses, residents and communities alike, and that is why we have worked hard with Cammell Laird and the relevant unions to get to this point.

“The contract being discussed here is one between the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and Cammell Laird. It is for the shipbuilder to decide how and where it subcontracts out work. We are explicitly restricted by legislation from specifying that 100% of any works have to be built in any specific locality. Instead, these conversations are a matter for unions and management to resolve through their own discussions.

“The reality of the situation is that, as a combined authority, we are legally bound to comply with the laws of the land. It is not within our power to override or break procurement law and dictate how businesses should proceed with the contracts awarded. To do so would leave us open to potential legal action, the costs of which would need to be borne by the public purse.”