During those first weeks of lockdown when the roads fell silent and there was hardly a plane in the sky, one service remained to ensure that fresh produce, fruit and vegetables continued to reach shops and supermarkets in Sussex. Unpublicised and uncelebrated, as so often in its history, the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry kept open a vital link between Sussex and Normandy during the peak of the crisis, carrying supplies from European producers to UK shores.
The ferry is also popular with travellers to and from France, drivers using it as a convenient crossing to holiday destinations. Over the past century and a half it has had a colourful history, carrying the famous and infamous, from Louis Philippe, the last exiled King of France, fleeing revolution, to the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, Charles Wells. Lord Lucan is rumoured to have leapt into the dark waters of the Channel from the rails of a night ferry.
The ferry has survived both financial and meteorological storms for almost 200 years. And once more storm clouds are gathering over that future. There is the obvious impact of Covid-19 and the prospect of a no deal Brexit. But it is a little-known fact that the service is subsidised entirely by the ratepayers of the Seine Maritime region, to the equivalent of €26 per head annually. The Conseil Départemental de la Seine Maritime is also the major shareholder of Newhaven Port Ltd.
In spite of the benefits to Newhaven and the surrounding area, the UK contributes not one penny towards the service. Post-Brexit, especially in the event of a no deal, there must be a question as to whether the politicians and ratepayers of Seine Maritime will agree to continue the subsidy when the contract with DFDS, the ferry operating company, comes up for renewal in two years’ time.
One man who thinks there is a better way of securing the ferry’s future is Graham Precey. Born and bred in Newhaven, he is a co-director of Newhaven Regeneration Group, and a founder member of the TransManche Users Group (TUG). He has been a passionate supporter of the ferry for years, and, as you would expect, a regular traveller on the line. He moved to Dieppe last year and now works from Normandy EcoSpace, a co-working venue devoted to innovation and digital transition, while continuing to commute across the Channel. In 2019 he organised a very successful Start Up Cruise on the ferry to encourage links between UK and French entrepreneurs who signed up for a programme of seminars and discussions onboard.
Precey believes that the current system of funding the route is inequitable, given that both Newhaven and Dieppe benefit from the income that it brings to the local economies. “It means that only one side of the Channel is incentivised to really care about making the link thrive and prosper,” he says. Given the government’s net zero emissions target Precey finds it extraordinary that the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), which plays a central role in determining local economic strategy, prioritises Gatwick, “encouraging people and products to simply fly over the Sussex and Normandy regions. But who kept Sussex fed and watered during lockdown? Not just Gatwick.”
Drawing on his previous experience with Legal and General Group, Precey’s vision is for the Newhaven to Dieppe route to be secured through long-term institutional pension fund investment, shared equally between France and the UK. He cites Condor Ferries in Poole as an example of a long-term pension fund (Columbia Threadneedle) refinancing a ferry company.
It won’t be easy, he admits. He notes radically different approaches to long-term community projects: “The French place great value on culture and people, before profit. The English prioritise profit and short-term returns over people and culture.”
Will the successors of the Cote d’Albatre and the Seven Sisters still be sailing in a few years time? Precey remains optimistic. He believes the Newhaven route could pioneer new clean green marine technologies and lead the way in reducing marine fuel bills and shipping’s carbon footprint: “Let’s make the Newhaven to Dieppe crossing famous for being the most low carbon route between London and Paris.”
“The ferry gives a lot of people such pleasure”, he adds, “As soon as they get on that boat they’re on holiday, they’re going for an adventure somewhere. The story starts on the ferry.”
With the coming of the railway to Newhaven in 1847 and the completion of the Paris-Rouen-Dieppe rail line in 1848, the route has for a long time been more popular with travellers from London to Paris than the rival Dover-Calais crossing. Let’s hope this historic and valued link remains for many years to come.