THE company managing the Sandbanks Ferry have been accused of "holding the community to ransom" as the service remains out of action.

Cllr Nick Boulter, chair of Studland Parish Council, called for a public inquiry into the operation of the crossing, which has now not been in service for four weeks since a "hydraulic fluid leak".

He said he has spoken to South Dorset MP Richard Drax about the situation.

The ferry company's bosses are still unable to provide a definite date for when it will return to service.

The crossing has not been in use, aside from a short-lived two days in December following an eight-week refit, for 12 weeks now, leaving thousands of beleaguered motorists high and dry.

A round trip from Swanage to Poole via the road, through Sandford, takes 40 miles and lasts around one-and-a-half hours.

This compares to a 12-mile round trip by ferry, lasting less than half an hour.

Business both sides of the crossing, residents and the tourist trade are being hit hard, community leaders say.

Cllr Boulter said: "It is scandalous to have the ferry out for the refit and then another four weeks.

"The journey time without the ferry is so much longer.

"As a parish council, our view is that a franchise for the crossing service should be put out for competitive tender.

"I do think there needs to be an inquiry. The situation is holding the community to ransom."

Swanage Chamber of Trade chairman and Purbeck District Council (PDC) member Caroline Finch is pushing for the ferry issue to go onto the agenda of next PDC and Swanage Town Council meeting.

"I have asked for the ferry issue to go on the agenda at the next Purbeck District Council meeting because at the end of the day the company is not providing the service," Cllr Finch said.

"As councillors we should be pushing for more action.

"I don't want to fall out with the ferry company because I love the ferry. But I do think this has become just so unfair, some people are really, really struggling."

On Friday the ferry firm, The Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry Company, posted its latest statement on its website.

Staff told the Daily Echo they were unable to elaborate on the statement, which read: "We are still working on getting the ferry back into service, we hope this will be very soon but at the moment do not have a definite date for this.

"We have been advised not to publish technical details of the problems we have encountered due to potentially prejudicing claims, but we assure everyone that we are working extremely hard to get her back into service as soon as possible but cannot until it is completely safe to do so."

Transport secretary Chris Grayling ruled against a proposed fare hike, which ferry owners wanted to implement to cover the costs of a new £10.7m vessel, last year.

A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: "The Secretary of State's role in relation to the Sandbanks Ferry is strictly limited to applications concerning the revision of tolls."