Bembridge Harbour is unusual in that it is not a Trust Port (an independent, self governing statutory body). Instead it is privately owned.
The circumstances by which it came to be privatised in 1963 caused a national scandal that contributed to the downfall of the Island’s Conservative MP at the time, Mark Woodnutt:
With the closure of the railway in 1961, British Rail were left in possession of much of the land at Bembridge Harbour. This was offered to the county council who chose not to purchase it. It was instead sold a syndicate headed by Major Charles Selwyn, proprietor of the Royal Spithead Hotel on the harbour, and then chairman of the county council. The syndicate established two separate development companies of which Woodnutt became a director. The companies subsequently purchased more land in the area from the county council at below market values. It became clear that the companies intended carrying out very large residential developments to offset the costs of dredging the harbour and reclaiming land.
There was great unease among the island’s residents about the scale of the proposed developments, and it was said that public lands had been sold without proper tenders. It was felt that Woodnutt’s position as an M.P. had given him privileged access, and consequent control of the harbour.
The Pier and Harbour Order (Bembridge Harbour) Confirmation Act 1963 made certain provisos for safe and sensible management of the Harbour, including the stipulation that all trading surplus must be reinvested.
Today the Harbour (below high water mark) is owned by the Bembridge Harbour Improvements Co Ltd under the directorship of Malcolm and Fiona Thorpe. This company carries with it the role of Statutory Harbour Authority.
Buildings and land around the Harbour belong to Bembridge Investments Ltd, also owned by Mr and Mrs Thorpe. Unlike BHIC Ltd this company does not come under jurisdiction of the Bembridge Harbour Act and the owners are free to run it as they see fit, in accordance with normal Company Law.
The two companies (BHIC Ltd and BI Ltd) are often referred to collectively (and somewhat confusingly) as ‘The Harbour Company’.
Despite the Act, the dual-company set up is open to abuse and the Harbour has suffered at the hands of unscrupulous owners in the past, the most notorious of which being Endon Barry Blatch, under whose ownership both BHIC Ltd and the land-owning company went into administration in 2011 with debts of over £2M. Mr Blatch was later imprisoned for a VAT fraud. At that time BHT made a bid to purchase the Harbour for safekeeping for the local community. BHT was outbid by the present owners.
The dual company ownership structure has caused difficulties in the past and ultimately single ownership in a community interest organisation is seen as the ideal. This does not preclude working constructively with any private owner. BHT now sees its role, precisely in line with its charitable objectives, in seeking good management of the Harbour in the interest of the communities that rely on it.