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SOUTHAMPTON’S new port director has a war chest of £100million to invest over the next five years, the Daily Echo can reveal.

Nick Ridehalgh, 47, who took up the reins less than two weeks ago replacing long-serving Doug Morrison, believes the port's value to the nation's economy will spiral by £400million in the same period to a whopping £1.4billion.

He has already set out his vision to boost trade at the port - by spending millions on a series of improvements.

New cranes, multi-storey car parks, a new port entrance and even a potential new cruise terminal are in the pipeline at the docks.

But one of his key tasks is to secure the Marchwood Military Port, in a bid to dramatically increase Associated British Ports' car handling capabilities - and create 400 jobs.

The Government has revealed it will launch a “formal sale process” of the 330-acre facility, possibly as early as March.

Speaking exclusively to the Daily Echo at his new office in Southampton, Mr Ridehalgh said: "The sale of Marchwood Military Port can ensure the Port of Southampton's role as a vital international gateway for Britain's businesses and exporters.

“ABP Southampton currently supports 15,000 jobs and contributes £1bn to the economy every year.”

The proposal has already sparked controversy with some locals fearing any increase in HGV movements will create noise and traffic problems in their community.

But Mr Ridehalgh said he was keen to engage with those who had concerns.

“We are keen to speak to local people and work with them to address any concerns they may have as we develop our plans,” he said.

“ABP is committed to supporting the area and we will do all we can to deliver the right outcome for local people."

Securing the port is one of Mr Ridelagh's main objectives as he settles in to life in Southampton, having arrived from a role on ABP's board looking after the Short Sea Ports business.

But he will also be looking to consolidate on the city's standing as the “jewel in the crown” of the company's vast empire.

He said of his new role: “It is very exciting. I was here 20 years ago for a short period of time so I am well aware of the scale of the operation and the importance of the port of Southampton not just to the region but also to the UK.

“It's a piece of infrastructure of national importance so to be given the opportunity of looking after it and trying to develop it is very exciting.

“This is absolutely a step up. Southampton is considered the jewel in ABP's crown.

“In terms of scale it's a big step up - nevertheless the business I was running before was very complex because of the whole range of activities that we undertook within the Short Sea Ports business.

“I think the brief is obviously to maintain Southampton's position within the markets in which we lead. Specifically cruise and cars have seen good growth and we want to continue to develop those markets.”

But although millions has been spent improving facilities, finding new space is seen as crucial to the firm's future.

The new director's predecessor, Doug Morrison, was vocal on his assertion that one day the port would expand in to Dibden Bay.

The controversial idea was dismissed following a major public enquiry a decade ago.

Mr Ridelagh, a police constable before he became involved in ports, believes securing Marchwood could delay the need to explore this option for “certainly a decade”.

“The limited availability of land is a real issue for us and whilst we need to continue to be creative to make best and optimal use of existing facilities, we are interested in Marchwood.

“Dibden Bay is a land area which was reclaimed for port use. It is in its scale similar to the existing port facility. I think one day it will potentially be available as an option for port use.

“What I think is true to say is that if ABP were successful with regards to Marchwood, the requirement for Dibden Bay would be deferred for a substantial period of time.”

In the meantime, the new man in charge says investments of up to £100million are possible over the next five years as he looks to take the docks in to a new era.

He added: “We now have the most efficient container port in Europe and the second largest in UK.

“We continue to develop that and invest so as to ensure there's a good long term future with the ability to accommodate the world's largest container ships.

“The real focus is to actually first and foremost maintain our lead and invest and look to develop our position even further.”