DORSET needs to be "less beholden" to the operators of the Sandbanks Ferry, who are given an effective monopoly by a 1920s act of Parliament, it has been claimed.

The ferry, which needs urgent repairs, is expected to be out of action until October – with businesses on both sides of the harbour saying the delay is costing them dear.

Julie Dyball, who set up the Ferry Action Group, said: "We hope that all the stakeholders involved will be able to get around the table and find a way to make the people of Studland and the surrounding area, who need to get across the harbour entrance, less beholden to the current ferry operator.

"The current, and previous, stoppages are making life very difficult for businesses and individuals who rely on the ferry.

"It seems at odds with current strategic thinking on transport to have one private company responsible for the smooth movement of traffic to and from the Isle of Purbeck."

"We would like to see a viable alternative for foot passengers and perhaps cyclists. It must be possible to have a back up boat in place as in most other areas of the UK that rely on a ferry like this."

The Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry Company was set up by a 1923 act of Parliament, which regulates the business and its ability to raise money and charge tolls.

Today, it is a profitable part of the Essex-based Fairacres Group of companies, which also owns commercial and residential properties and a hotel business.

Accounts for the year ending March 2018 show the ferry turned over £3.13million and generated a pre-tax profit of £1.48m.

In contrast, Fairacres’ hospitality business Review Hotels generated a pre-tax profit of only £444,873 on an income of £6.18m and had liabilities outstripping its assets by £523,908.

The whole group turned over £9.8m and had a pre-tax profit of just £1.5m.

The value of the ferry business helps guarantee overdrafts and loans for other companies in the group, including £8m in loans for Silvermist Properties (Chelmsford) Ltd. Together, the group of companies has a net indebtedness of zero.

Last year, a government inspector turned down an application by the ferry company to increase its prices. Its case was based in part on the need to replace the ferry in the coming years.

The company had said it should be in a position to replace the ferry by 2026 at an anticipated cost of £10.6m.

It allocates money to a ferry replacement fund which stood at £1.9m as of 2017, but inspector Kenneth Stone noted that this money was not in fact ringfenced in a separate account.

He said the reported size of the ferry replacement fund had fluctuated. In some years, money from the fund was transferred back into the company's profits to enable payment of dividends to shareholders.

Mr Stone noted that the company had previously given the expected replacement date for the ferry as 2017, 2021 and 2024.

“The company were unable to give any degree of certainty that the ferry would be replaced in 2026 and indicated that it would be a decision based on whether it was uneconomic to continue to operate the ferry,” he wrote.

“Given the previous applications I have no confidence that this would not move again.”