Race against time to save the Planet

Fears that historic lightship will be sold for scrap this week

Written by  Larry Neild | Follow @larryneild | Wednesday, 14 December 2016 09:32

A LAST minute race is on to save the Planet, the red bar lightship that was moored on Liverpool’s waterfront - until a storm erupted over unpaid fees.

Around 1,000 people have signed a petition to have the famous ship, once described as the lantern on Liverpool’s front door, returned to its home on the Mersey.

The Canal & River Trust made this mess, so they should clear it up - it's their moral duty to the people of Liverpool

But unless there is a change of heart over the next 48 hours, the old vessel, the last of Liverpool’s floating lightships, could end up being sold for scrap.

Liverpool Riverside MP Louise Ellman, chairman of the House of Commons Transport Committee, has vowed to help. But whether she has enough political power or Kryptonite to save the Planet, will be known by the end of the week.

A campaign to bring the Planet home is being led by the Merseyside Civic Society.

It is demanding its return following the seizure of the vessel by the Canal and River Trust, which now runs both the Albert and Canning Docks, mainly as a “parking bay’ for narrowboats.

The saga started as a dispute over £10,000 unpaid mooring fees, resulting in the lightship being towed 200 miles to Sharpness, Gloucestershire, where it currently awaits its fate.

Read: The lonely Planet sails away 

According to Merseyside Civic Society's Jonathan Brown, the Canal & River Trust has put the Planet up for sale at £100,000 with a deadline of 16 December, 2016, citing its expenditure of an estimated £56,000. The original £10,000 debt has now been paid.

"There is no guarantee that Planet won’t be bought for scrap or brought back to Liverpool," said Brown.

The petition calls for a “reversal of the decision to remove the Planet Lightship from Liverpool, stop the sell off and secure its safe return to public use on the River Mersey and historic docks”.

Another place: The Planet is towed away to Sharpness by the Canal & River Trust in a row over unpaid mooring fees Another place: The Planet is towed away to Sharpness by the Canal & River Trust after a row over unpaid mooring fees

Merseyside Civic Society says:  "The Canal and River Trust's calamitous decision to remove the Planet Lightship from Liverpool and tow it to Gloucester has placed at risk a key piece of Britain's maritime heritage. Despite it being in good condition, C&RT are selling the ship on 16th December, potentially for scrap.

"The beautiful Planet was Britain's last manned lightship and was world famous among mariners for marking the entrance to the Port of Liverpool channels at the Mersey Bar sandbanks, 12 miles out to sea in Liverpool Bay.

"During the final years of the great trans-Atlantic liners, sea captains used to race from New York's similar Ambrose Lightship to Liverpool's Planet to see if they could set new times. Glimpsing the Planet Lightship meant seafarers were safely home after long voyages."

It was QE2 Captain Robin Woodall, of Hoylake, who memorably described Planet as the "Lantern on Liverpool's front door" for millions of sailors and passengers.

After many years in retirement and on public display at Canning Dock in Liverpool's UNESCO World Heritage Site, Planet was suddenly seized in September 2016 and towed over 200 miles round Wales to Gloucester by the Canal and River Trust (C&RT), in a dispute over mooring fees, involving a sum reported to be £10k.

Brown says the C&RT accept the owed fees have now been paid, but say they must recover the (much greater) costs of towing the ship and storing it in Gloucester by putting the ship on sale for a guide price of £100k.

The fear is the Planet is likely to be sold to the highest bidder - who could include scrap merchants - and there is no stipulation the ship must be returned to its home port of Liverpool.

Louise Ellman has told the MCS  that she will contact Bob Pointing, the Canal & River Trust North West chairman, to see what action can be taken to stop the Planet's sale.

Mrs Ellman has also been asked by the civic society to take the matter to a national level by contacting Allan Leighton, Canal &River Trust chair, and Richard Parry, C&RT CEO, both based in at C&RT's Milton Keynes HQ, and also Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for the Environment

Merseyside Civic Society council member Peter Elson said: "This calamitous situation is indicative of the Canal & River Trust's over-reaction and disastrous error of judgement in the handling of this dispute.

"With the enforced removal of the Planet, in effect the people of Liverpool are being made to pick up the bill for the Canal & River Trust's heavy handed reaction in spending five and a half times the amount to pursue a now settled berthing bill. Why should land-locked, Canal & River Trust chiefs in their Milton Keynes ivory tower dictate the disposal of Liverpool's irreplaceable maritime heritage?"

He added: ”Doubtless, money will be cited as a reason to block Planet's Liverpool return, but the Canal & River Trust is a wealthy organisation with £190m pa revenue, of which £50m is paid annually by the Government. 

“The Canal & River Trust made this mess, so they should clear it up - it's their moral duty to the people of Liverpool."