SHIPOWNERS are calling for an end to the UK subsidy of Irish lighthouses, which is a major reason behind controversial government proposals to raise taxes at ports like Southampton.

Some of the port’s biggest customers could see their tax bill for calling at Southampton rise by 67 per cent under the proposals to raise so called light dues, which pay for the upkeep of lighthouses.

The rise is needed to tackle a £21m shortfall in the funding of lighthouses, much of which is down to an historic agreement that the UK funds the maintenance of Irish navigational aids.

It is this subsidy, estimated to be as much as £14m, that has angered the Lights Advisory Committee (LAC), which represents shipowners, ports and the fishing community.

Light dues sees ships taxed by weight. The Government is proposing the rate climb from 35p a net tonne to 41p, and the cap up to which the rate is payable rise from 35,000 tonnes to 50,000 tonnes.

Finally, they suggest ships be liable for the dues on the first nine calls per year as opposed to the first seven currently.

Under the proposals, major Southampton container shipping client CMA CGM is reported to face a UK tax increase equivalent to £1.5m a year and the port’s biggest car handling firm Wallennius Wilhelmsen could see its annual tax bill rise by £300,000.

Industry watchers warn they and other companies may decide to use rival ports like Rotterdam in Holland and Le Havre in France, using small, cheaper “feeder” vessels to transfer goods into the UK instead.

Docks bosses said it looked like the industry was “under attack” from the Government and warned major shipping lines could switch to using cheaper foreign rivals.

The hike comes on the back of changes to the way port rates are collected that has landed 25 Southampton port firms with a backdated tax bill of £3.75m.

At the same time, the global recession is hitting the city waterfront with car handling volumes down by almost 50 per cent and container volumes dropping by at least ten per cent.

A statement from the LAC said: “In the current economic climate, any increase in light dues is unaffordable and unacceptable.

“The proposed changes in the light dues formula are especially misconceived and are likely to lead to a reduction in overall light dues revenue.”

Port boss Doug Morrison said: “Light dues pay for the UK’s lighthouses.

They are saying they have got a shortfall of £21m, but a huge portion of that is paying for southern Ireland’s lighthouses.

£14m of the £21m shortfall is for southern Ireland – it’s incredible.

“Anything at all that talks about increasing costs by the sort of levels they are talking about could drive ships away to mainland Europe, where they don’t pay light dues at all.”