CONSENT for an £80m upgrade of Southampton’s container port has been withdrawn for reassessment after legal action from its largest UK rival, the Daily Echo has learned.

Hutchinson Ports, which owns Felixstowe Port, applied for a judicial review of a decision to give the go-ahead for major works to develop berths 201 and 202 into a new 500m quay wall capable of handling the next generation of supersized container ships.

The Marine Management Organisation (MMO), a public body which issued the required environmental consent to ABP Southampton in February, decided not to defend the challenge.

It agreed in the High Court with Hutchinson lawyers that its decision should be quashed and it would reassess Southampton ABP’s application as environmental assessment of the effects of the project had not been fully examined, including the impacts on traffic in Southampton and beyond.

The legal manoeuvres have delayed vital work to restore a lost fourth berth in Southampton after the increasing length of container ships has meant Southampton’s existing deep-sea container berths, 204 to 207, cannot accommodate four large vessels at the same time.

ABP bosses hope to receive planning consent early next year for the new quay space to be operational by the end of 2013.

Port director Doug Morrison said it was a “major delay” to the investment which ABP was “desperate” to make in Southampton.

However, conditions applied to the original consent to protect migratory Atlantic salmon would have meant the main works would not have begun until September next year.

The new berths and dredging works are part of a port masterplan to boost box handling capacity from two million to 2.7m (TEUs or twenty foot equivalent units) by 2020.

The delays come as Felixstowe, which handles over three million containers (TEUs) a year, making it the busiest container port in the UK and roughly double Southampton’s throughput, has just opened two 730m long berths, eight and nine, capable of handling the largest container ships on order.

The biggest ships in use at the moment can carry around 15,000 TEUS but Maersk’s triple-E class ships will by 2013 be capable of carrying 18,000 TEUS.

Felixstowe is already facing the threat of DP World’s London Gateway terminal, which is set to open in late 2013 with a 1.6m teu capacity.

DP World also jointly owns and runs Southampton’s container terminal, although it insisted the terminals will “complement each other” offering choice to DP World’s existing and potential customers.

A spokeswoman for the MMO said it had met ABP Southampton in recent months to agree the additional information required to reassess its application.

She added: “ABP Southampton issued a new environmental statement (ES) to the MMO on October 24 and we are currently reviewing this document. Once the MMO is satisfied with the scope of the ES we will proceed to consultation with our primary consultees and the public.”

Hutchinson Ports declined to comment.