SOMERSET Council’s decision to increase harbour fees in Minehead by 4,500 per cent is to be challenged in the courts and is the subject of a complaint being lodged with the Local Government Ombudsman.

Volunteer-run Minehead Sailing and Watersports Club is taking the action after it was forced to close last month after more than 60 years because it could no longer afford the new fees.

The club has told Liberal Democrat council leader Cllr Bill Revans it firmly believes due process was not followed when the authority's officers made the decision.

It believes it has suffered from unfair treatment, a failure to consult, and breaches of the 1952 Pier and 1964 Harbour Acts.

The club sought legal advice on challenging the increased fees because of the council’s perceived unlawful discharge of its duties under the stipulations of the two Acts and has outlined its case in a letter to the Secretary of State for Transport.

The row centres on a decision by the council to impose a £120 a year charge for each sailing club member to use the harbour slipway instead of a single collective fee, which the club offered to increase by 66 per cent to £200.

The sailing club said it would continue to fight for its future sustainability but the council was refusing to engage with its officers.

It wanted to know in particular why an annual fee of £171 was paid for Burnham-on-Sea’s jetty use, yet Minehead’s £200 offer was rejected.

The council said the new charges were necessary to run Minehead Harbour on a ‘cost neutral basis’ and meet the requirements of the Port Marine Safety Code.

Sailing club membership secretary Sarah Reed said: “The club understands Minehead Harbour needs to recoup its operating costs.

“But comparatively speaking, most harbours provide facilities and Minehead remains one of the most expensive slipways in the south in relation to facilities it provides.

“The club are astounded that its worth to the community has been diminished and the council has chosen to put profit before people.”

Club secretary Debbie Allum said: “The council constitution states it has procedures to ensure it is efficient, transparent and accountable to local people.

“Despite numerous requests for an urgent review of the new fees, which priced small leisure craft out of the harbour, there has been no transparency or accountability from Somerset Council.

“They have effectively destroyed the harbour community, to the detriment of the town, our local sports charity, visitors, and residents alike.

“The council continues to insist that the harbour must be ‘cost neutral’ despite an annual deficit of tens of thousands of pounds.

“The real tragedy is that the harbour is now unused and unaffordable.

“Visitors assume that either the water is polluted or the slipway unsafe, as it is chained off, an action the club believes is unlawful.

“Ultimately, the council will be scrutinised for its decision process, but this does not facilitate the short-term mental and physical well-being of the public.”