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December 13, 2022

Stop digging

Interesting reaction from Transport Scotland to an initiative by local people on Mull which comes from mounting frustration at CalMac’s inability to deliver a reliable ferry service. The initiative, funded by HIE, is to explore the potential of creating a community owned ferry company and take over the failing service between Mull and the mainland. Transport Scotland has issued a statement saying that the Scottish Government will not countenance the break up of its current monopoly service. No explanation given, no discussion to be had. When you’re in a hole, the advice is normally to stop digging.

Mull and Iona Ferry Committee

BBC Interview 

The Hebridean ferry system is under the spotlight on the back of widespread disruption, chronic reliability issues, an ageing fleet, and the debacle of hulls 801 and 802.

That is being added to by the anticipation of a new Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services (CHFS) contract from 2024. In advance of that, Scottish Government have commissioned ‘Project Neptune‘, a piece of consultancy that examines the options for future ferry provision. (Including such fundamental matters as whether the separation of CalMac and CMAL should continue, what shape contracts should take, and what type of organisations should operate ferry services). In the Scottish Parliament, two separate ferry enquiries are underway – one by the Audit Committee examining the circumstances around 801/2, and another by the Transport Committee asking what the future shape of ferry services should be.

As well as those potential policy and structural changes on the horizon, we on Mull and Iona are soon to have the biggest change to our main ferry service in fifty years, with the up-coming retirement and replacement of the MV Isle of Mull and the re-building of Craignure Pier.

With all of that background, MIFC have been considering whether our main ferry services could be delivered differently. An intriguing and potentially revolutionary suggestion is that a community-controlled company could run our ferry services. First suggested by ferry expert and author Roy Pedersen, we thought it was worthy of further exploration. Having experienced the appalling decision-making of CMAL and the harm done to our services by a remote and largely unaccountable quango, could a community-controlled company do better?

It would be a big undertaking, that’s for sure. There are pros and cons, and there are risks. Many we don’t even know about yet. But we thought it was at least worthy of full exploration. So last year we commissioned Roy Pedersen to put together a full proposal paper, and you can read it below. It makes for interesting reading. But to really understand how this could be done and whether it’s feasible, we need to do more work.

To that end, Highlands and Islands Enterprise have awarded us a grant to pay for a second phase of consultancy, and today we are issuing an invitation to tender for that work.

At this stage, the main arguments in favour are:

  • More direct accountability of the ferry operator to the community
  • A more island-focussed service, with decisions made by the people directly affected
  • A more cost-effective service that can afford to operate more frequent services
  • Any operating profit would be returned to the community

On the other hand, there are uncertainties and potential negatives:

  • Is there the appetite on the island for the work and commitment needed?
  • How would the business be financed?
  • How would the service integrate with other ferry services operated by others?
  • In the end, would we get a better ferry service than one provided by CalMac Ferries Ltd?

We also need to be clear that ultimately, this will be decided by Scottish Government. It is they who decide how public ferry contracts are issued – ie whether they want one company to operate all services across the whole network (as CalMac Ferries Ltd do now), or whether they are open to allowing small parts of the service (or individual routes) to be contracted to other operators. This is the concept of ‘unbundling’, and it is explored in more detail here.

We hope that the report we are commissioning will be complete early next year, and we will then have enough detail for the communities of Mull and Iona to consider it properly. This would be a community undertaking, and it should only go further if it has community backing. But there will be no opportunity for this at all, unless Scottish Government allow it. There is no opportunity to compete with CalMac Ferries by operating the same route alongside them, particularly when fares are set by government. Without subsidy and the certainty of a long-term government contract, no ferry company could survive. So if a community ferry company is to get off the ground, it will need the backing of both the community and Scottish Government.

So far, both the First Minister and the Transport Minister have said “there will be no unbundling”. We think that before coming to that conclusion, we should at least explore the prospect fully. Unbundling has been tarnished (sometimes deliberately) by being associated with privatisation, where subsidy is removed and only profitable routes operate. No-one wants that. Our ferries are essential public infrastructure. We utterly rely on them to be affordable, reliable and available.

So as we explore the possibility of a community ferry company, we hope that Scottish Government will be equally open-minded and assess it objectively and in detail alongside us.

So today we have written to Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth and our MSP Jenni Minto, inviting them to discuss the idea and to work with us on it.

Once the feasibility study is complete we will be holding consultation meetings on Mull and Iona, but meantime if you live on Mull and Iona and have thoughts on this idea we would be glad to hear them.