A former Scottish Office minister has called for an independent review of “current and future issues affecting west coast ferry services”.
Brian Wilson, who lives on the Isle of Lewis and chairs one of the island’s largest employers, Harris Tweed Hebrides, says: “It is completely unfair on CalMac Ferries and the people who work for them that they are at the sharp end of every crisis while the causes are largely outside their control”
He said the review should take place “outside the political arena”.
The call came amidst renewed concerns over ferry cancellations as the overstretched CalMac fleet struggles to cope after a breakdown of the vessel mv Isle of Lewis, now nearly a quarter of a century old.
Mr Wilson’s call came off the back of an open letter from a respected CalMac skipper, retiring after 34 years, who warned: “Attention needs to be focused on the infrastructure problems if the company I’ve been proud to serve is not to fall flat on its face fairly soon.”
The Scottish Government quango, Caledonian Marine Assets Ltd, which is responsible for procuring piers and vessels, is locked in a £61 million legal dispute with Ferguson shipyard on the Clyde over two unfinished ferries which are desperately needed to augment the CalMac fleet.
Mr Wilson said: “These problems are now so urgent and interwoven that the only sensible way to proceed is through a general review of what has gone wrong, how it is going to be addressed over the next few years and how much it is going to cost”.
“Making and mending on a daily basis repeatedly puts the ball back in CalMac’s court though they now have no involvement in procurement or design of vessels, or even capacity.
“Maybe, for example, CMAL should be scrapped and an integrated approach restored. The split between operations and infrastructure was supposedly demanded by the EU so that could be one quick gain if we come out.
“This is so important for all island communities and every business dependent on reliable communications. We need an authoritative look at all these issues, outside the political arena, in order to find a way forward.”
Commenting on the continuing problems of the ferry service to the Western Isles, Highlands and Islands Tory MSP Donald Cameron says the issue is a “devastating indictment” of the Scottish Government for failing to plan properly for the service.
“If people lose confidence in the reliability of the service then they will think twice about setting up businesses and investing in the islands. I have had numerous constituents from the Western Isles contacting me to express their fears.
"This failure by the Scottish Government to sort out the ferry service is a devastating indictment of the SNP’s 12-year track record in Government.
“This is a lifeline service and fundamental to the future of the Western Isles and yet we have not seen the necessary long-term planning to ensure that we have a fit-for-purpose ferry fleet.
“The SNP continue to fail the Western Isles and have allowed this situation to develop over the last decade while the service has deteriorated.
“We now need a positive commitment from Nicola Sturgeon to provide the islands with a resilient ferry service that minimises the chance of cancellations at the height of the summer season.”