LIVERPOOL has been accused of jumping the gun after boasting it had struck a deal with ministers to expand its cruise operation within three months.
The shock development was revealed by council leader Joe Anderson, who said he was “really excited” about the city becoming a turnaround port – placing it in direct competition with Southampton.
Aside from repaying up to £9.2m to the Government, Liverpool is attempting to write off all of the £8.6m in EU funds it was given to build its £21m Pier Head terminal.
The Merseysiders’ move was branded “arrogant” by a Hampshire MP, who forecast a possible legal challenge from Southampton unless all the cash is paid back.
The Department for Transport insisted it was still waiting for an independent assessment of how much state funding Liverpool should pay back.
But Cllr Anderson, who has just launched a high-profile bid to become the new Mayor of Liverpool, said: “We can now look forward to the big ships returning to the Mersey to start and end cruises.”
He also said Liverpool would be able to spread its UK repayments over “a number of years” – based on cruise income.
Southampton council leader Royston Smith said: “It’s nothing more than political posturing. I believe he’s trying to force the |minister’s hand by announcing a deal has been reached when it clearly |hasn’t.”
Southampton’s port boss Doug Morrison, right, said Liverpool’s announcement was “frankly bizarre” and insisted it must pay back all public subsidies for a “level playing field.”
“Full repayment of all the public money, including the European grants, should be a mandatory condition if the Liverpool terminal wants to compete with private investment for the turnaround cruise business,” he said.
Last month, shipping minister Mike Penning rejected Liverpool’s offer to pay back £5.3m of the £9.2m UK grants it received to lift a ban on cruises being allowed to start and finish at its City of Liverpool Cruise Terminal.
He said he would seek independent advice on an appropriate figure, and was clear that turnaround operations would require state aid clearance from the European Commission.
The Commission said it would wait for the UK government’s final decision before its next move.
Liverpool believes it is under no legal obligation to repay any of the European funds, and is pressing ahead after claiming a deal with Mr Penning.
He said: “This shows a degree of arrogance which may well be humbled in the courts.
“It’s a particularly reckless move they may end up regretting.”
Southampton Itchen MP John Denham said: “There is no way a British minister can simply do a deal to |settle this. Our position has still got to be we are not afraid of competition, but it has to be fair competition.”
A Liverpool council spokesman said it was not being “presumptive”, but was “getting the wheels in motion”.
Councillor Anderson said: “We have held talks with the minister and agreed we will pay back any sum decided by the independent panel.”
A Department for Transport spokesman added: “As the shipping minister made clear last month, we are currently seeking independent advice on an appropriate repayment figure, and any decision on whether to lift the restrictions on turnaround operations will be subject to state aid clearance from the European Commission.”