The Scottish Government has come under attack from Labour and Tory MSPs for the failures of the Islands’ ferry services
Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant criticised the Scottish Government’s lack of foresight and strategic approach to the ferry infrastructure and condemned it for ignoring the wishes and advice of local communities.
“When Loch Seaforth was built for the Stornoway to Ullapool route, the community wanted two smaller boats. This would enable more sailings in the summer and provide cover throughout the fleet in the winter for dry-docking.
“Instead, the Government gave them one large vessel that does not provide sufficient capacity in the summer and sails half empty in the winter.”
Ms Grant went on to say that “The Government brought in RET, another flagship policy, but did so without providing any additional capacity. This means the very policy put in place to help islanders has had the effect of shutting them out of ferries.
“People travelling at short notice cannot get a place on the boat to make these journeys. People who need to get to hospital, to visit sick relatives and to attend funerals all find that they cannot travel. Port staff do their utmost to help but most people are now routed through the centralised call centre and do not get to speak direct to port staff."
Ms Grant added that the fact that no one in the Scottish Government was measuring unmet need despite ongoing calls from local communities for improvements in service was a disgrace.
She then raised the ongoing delays to the new dual-fuel ferries MV Glen Sannox and the unnamed Hull 802 which are now almost two years overdue. Ms Grant condemned the mismanaged project.
“You could not make it up,” said Ms Grant. “It would appear these vanity projects mean that the Scottish Taxpayer is paying much more than they need to for new ferries.”
“We desperately need more new ferries so cannot afford to waste money.”
Ms Grant continued: “And the problems don’t stop there. We are now seeing delays with the Northern Isles Ferry contract where the Scottish Government appears to have again shut out the lowest bidder”
Meanwhile a Conservative motion in the Scottish parliament highlights that since 2007, there has been over 82,000 delays and cancellations across the Clyde and Hebridean Ferry Service network.
Figures from the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) show that between January and September this year, the Stornoway to Ullapool route saw 30 cancelled sailings, and has arrived late on 226 occasions.
In a speech to the chamber, Donald Cameron MSP said: “Many local residents on the island are forced to plan ahead and book spaces on this service to travel to the mainland due to space being booked up well in advance by tourists and by haulage. But even visitors struggle to book onto the ferry, such is the demand during peak season.”
Later Donald said: “Residents across the Lewis and Harris continue to raise this issue with me, and I will continue to highlight this anger to the Scottish Government. The time for action is now, and I will work constructively with the Scottish Government to ensure residents get the reliable and robust service that everyone wants.”
In the same debate, Alasdair Allan, the SNP MSP said:"It is true that not everything is as it should—or could—be with our ferry services. However, in the past decade, we have seen many improvements. The introduction of RET was revolutionary and we have come a long way from the days when the Western Isles MP Donald Stewart was a lonely voice in the House of Commons when he advocated it. The present Scottish Government has doubled, in real terms, the amount of money that is invested in ferry services. That has been necessary to deal with the previous decade of chronic underinvestment, during which, as other members have pointed out, virtually no major vessels were built.
"Compared with the figures from a decade ago, ferries to the Western Isles now deal with an astonishing 184,000 additional passenger journeys every year. The number of visitors that we now host in May is typically what we would previously have expected to see in July, which is a good thing. It is also a fantastic tribute to the work that the tourist industry and others have done in making the Western Isles a must-visit destination for a huge range of tourists.
"That obviously puts strain on the network, the negative effects of which are felt predominantly by islanders who are trying to get on and off the islands at short notice. Although local people are able to live with that on a few busy weekends, it is asking too much for them to accept it for the whole of the summer. It is clear that we need more capacity on routes to the Western Isles. We also need to listen to what islanders say about how to deal with capacity issues in the short term. Over the summer there were calls for measures such as reserving space for islanders or introducing staggered bookings, and it is right that CalMac should explore the feasibility of introducing those."
(This article has been updated since first being published)