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January 11, 2022

Ferry users furious

It’s now standard practice for the Scottish Government to involve people with lived experience of any specific area of policy or public service which comes under scrutiny. It seems however, that this practice is being rather selectively applied. For months on end, our island communities have had to endure constant disruptions to their ferry services due to problems with CalMac’s ageing fleet. Notwithstanding that it is hard to imagine any such disruption to lifeline services across the central belt being tolerated in this way, calls from ferry users for seats on the board of CalMac are being routinely ignored.

Martin Williams, The Herald

FERRY users have expressed outrage at a failure to have representation on a series of Scottish Government-controlled companies overseeing the nation’s ageing and failing fleet.

Groups are concerned that they have no representation on the boards of ferry operator CalMac and Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), the taxpayer-funded company which owns and procures ferries.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the council for the Western Isles has said that the Scottish Government have “ignored” the pleas from councils and stakeholders across the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Service network to address the “fundamental gap” on island representation on CalMac owners David MacBrayne Limited (DML).

Instead they have appointed a new chairman and three new non-executive directors with no residential tie to the communities the company serves.

That new chair is Dane Erik Ostergaard, who is currently chairman of  CMAL but will move into the DML role on January 3 – leading to speculation that there could be a merger in the wake of the disastrous failure to deliver two lifeline island ferries.

The state-owned ferry operator CalMac is having to handle an ageing ferry fleet with new lifeline vessels MV Glen Sannox and Hull 802 still languishing in the now state-owned Ferguson Marine shipyard, with costs of their construction more than doubling from the original £97m contract and delivery over four years late.

The ferries contract was plagued by design changes, delays and disputes over cost, with CMAL and former owner of Ferguson Marine, tycoon Jim McColl, who is one of Nicola Sturgeon’s own economic advisers, blaming each other.

Mr Ostergaard, has led CMAL through all the controversies and is a virtual unknown on the islands despite having been with the Scottish Government-controlled body since 2006 and chairman since April, 2014.

Ferry users have further said that Transport Scotland has snubbed them by refusing to extend an invitation to the Arran Ferry Action Group to an Ardrossan Harbour Task Force meeting due to be held yesterday despite the First Minister recognising them as stakeholders last week.

Instead the users group, formed two years ago due to what they called the ‘closed nature’ of the task force, were advised to present questions to the meeting which is headed by transport minister Graeme Dey.

The meeting is the first since December, last year and comes in a year when a series of breakdowns have caused major disruption across the ferry network.

In June, businesses and residents of Arran collaborated in an emotional video plea for government action to end the ‘ferry fiasco’ which is “threatening the very sustainability of our island”.

Arran’s two-vessel service was cut in half for nearly seven weeks during the summer after one of the biggest ferries in the ageing CalMac fleet broke down.

MV Isle of Arran was drafted in after Mv Loch Seaforth which runs the Ullapool to Stornoway route was found to have major engine problems.

Last week, the First Minister in responding to a question about whether berthing fees with Arran ferry service, one of the busiest in Scotland, should be reinvested in the network, said she would ask the transport minister to write with some detail about investments “and the work that we and Transport Scotland are doing with stakeholders, including Peel Ports Group, North Ayrshire Council and the Arran Ferry Group, to improve services and infrastructure particularly on the Arran route.” The official record amended her words to state “Arran Ferry Users Group”.

Sam Bourne of the ferry users group said: “It all tells the same tale of a fundamental lack of sufficient island representation of bodies such as CalMac and CMAL.

“People in positions of authority making decisions on matters that directly affect the fundamental viability of our island communities without properly taking the views and opinions into account.

“How can a board member who has driven from Edinburgh along the M8 to the Ardrossan Task Force, for example, have any of the lived experience of islanders who are currently marooned. The lived experience of trying to plan days in advance to attend medical appointments, or work commitments, or for deliveries, or contractors, and so many other areas.”

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar expressed concern that not one single resident of an island served by David MacBrayne or its subsidiary Calmac Ferries Limited sits on the company board and the said: “This opportunity to right this wrong has been passed up by ministers”.

The three other DML appointments include two seasoned quangoteers and the chairman of the Western Isles Health Board’s audit committee, Tim Ingram, who is based on Aberdeen.

The other new appointees are Sharon O’Connor who sits on the Accounts Commission of Scotland while Grant Macrae doubles as a board member of the Scottish Police Authority. Neither of them has any obvious island or maritime experience.

At a meeting of the Hebrides Ferry Stakeholder Group last Thursday, community stakeholders supported the call for lived experience of the ferry services be a prerequisite of any and all future appointments to DML.

Chairman of transportation and infrastructure, Uisdean Robertson, said: “The recent failure to address the absence of residents of the islands served by Calmac in the appointment of board members to DML has caused real anger in our communities. “It is little wonder that the management of the company are so detached from the reality of their decisions when they are based far away at a headquarters in Inverclyde and those appointed to hold the company to account have limited experience of how the company’s actions affect people from Lewis to Arran.

“Having raised this issue with the transport minister I had hoped our concern was understood and these vacancies would be filled by islanders. The Comhairle will continue to press the case for real and meaningful change in the voice communities have in shaping our lifeline ferry services”.

Independent ferries community board chairman Angus Campbell added: “The Ferries Community Board firmly believe that life experience of living on islands and first hand knowledge of how lifeline ferry services impact on island communities are an essential part of the skill mix required to undertake these roles.

“An opportunity has been lost to add knowledge and improve decision making for both the company and the communities they serve”.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Scottish Ministers are committed to ensuring that island residents and communities’ views are represented appropriately and have asked the new chair, as a priority, to consider how this might be achieved.

“DML Board Members were appointed based on their experience and abilities. An understanding of the role of transport, including ferries, in maintaining the economic and social integrity of the Highlands and Islands is a requirement for all board members.”

The spokesman also said residents of island communities were free to apply to become members of the DML Board if they wish, but could not say whether any had done so already.