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Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan has been brought to strong words following the latest onslaught of political, media, and community outcry regarding the lamentable state of island ferry services.

The Na h-Eileanan an Iar MSP has taken the chance today (Tuesday 9 August) both to answer constituents on social media and to write to the Scottish Government transport secretary, Jenny Gilruth MSP, pressing for renewed efforts to get action on ferry services, especially those serving Harris and Uist.

In unusually heartfelt language for the generally measured MSP, Dr Allan has used expressions like ‘utterly unacceptable’ and ‘completely intolerable’, describing the recent situation as ‘turmoil’ and ‘crisis’ and ferry passengers as ‘angry, frustrated and discouraged.’

Dr Allan is responding, in part, to a slew of comments in national and local media, on social media and in his own inbox, many accusing island political representatives – and the Scottish Government as a whole – of inertia.

In a message to constituents on his Facebook page earlier today, Dr Allan said: “While MV Hebrides' return to full service yesterday – at last – is a relief, what passengers and local businesses throughout the islands have been subjected to over the past week and a half has been utterly unacceptable. And of course, the problems we have experienced go back a lot further than that. 

“I have been continuing to do all I can to assist individuals urgently needing to travel to/from the mainland while ferry services have been under immense pressure. I continue to engage regularly with the transport minister and CalMac on the wider issues underpinning this crisis. 

“In particular, I have also been pressing the transport minister on the establishment of a compensation fund for situations like this (using Transport Scotland's fines received from CalMac for services which do not run), as the short and long-term financial loss to local island economies cannot be overstated.

“Yesterday, I took part in a meeting between the minister, CalMac and community groups in which I made it clear again that the current situation with ferry services is completely intolerable. 

“As a matter of priority, we now need to try to shorten the time that services to Lochmaddy and Tarbert will be disrupted by the Uig closure this winter if that is humanly possible. Meanwhile mitigations need to be put in place in terms of extra capacity on other routes.”

To underline his activity on the topic, Dr Allan later reproduced in full today’s letter to the transport minister, in which he said he had been ‘inundated with correspondence from constituents, organisations, businesses and visitors who are angry, frustrated and discouraged at the seemingly endless turmoil caused by technical breakdowns in our fleet.’

He said: “Once again, village halls have needed to open their doors to accommodate stranded tourists. Once again, shelves in shops have been laid bare of fresh food. And once again, island businesses have borne the brunt of cancelled bookings, suspended shipments, and eleventh-hour contingency plans.

“My constituents have made it clear that the level of lifeline services to the Western Isles – specifically, of late, to Uist and Harris – has been unacceptable in the past few months. 

“Reliability is deteriorating. This has meant that many islanders have little faith in the ability of the ferries to provide the lifeline service they need.

“I need not tell you of the detrimental impact which all this has on island life. In the last fortnight alone, I have been contacted by constituents unable to visit families, businesses losing tens of thousands of pounds in sorely needed income, and contractors engaged in major infrastructural projects incurring significant additional costs. 

“Island residents are at their wits' end; a number of businesses are laying off staff and assessing their futures. The declining resilience and reliability of the west coast's ferry network is causing serious harm to the islands' economy.”

Dr Allan goes on to illustrate the kind of figures quoted to him in lost income over the past fortnight, in businesses from agriculture to tourism, from Lewis to Barra.

He said: “(Those who) have contacted me with estimations of their financial losses caused by poor ferry provision since the beginning of the year – £7,000 here, £40,000 there, £10,000 here. These figures add up to a significant sum of lost revenue for a fragile economy.”

And he called for a compensation scheme paid for out of the financial penalties government receives from Calmac Ferries Ltd, when services are cancelled due to technical failures, redeployment or other avoidable cancellation.

He said: “These funds, which I understand to total around £3.5m for cancellations since 2021, would be welcomed by those businesses who have borne the brunt of disruptions.

“Some have been unable to open; others have laid off workers. All are trying to regain their feet following the Covid pandemic, with the added challenge of a second summer in a row to have been blighted by transport disruptions.”

And he questioned why some of the technical faults plaguing the CalMac fleet keep recurring, saying: “At the height of the summer season, ferries are suffering from persistent technical faults, causing disruption on a weekly basis. This is the third time MV Hebrides has been pulled from the Uig Triangle due to issues with her firefighting system in as many months. 

“I believe that there are questions to be asked regarding the annual overhaul work; was MV Hebrides' firefighting system adequately tested this winter; were any problems with it found?

“As I know you appreciate, we simply need more vessels. The fleet is now wholly deployed, with no resilience whatsoever. There is poor contingency planning, and the pain of disruption is passed from one island community to the other. Until those vessels being constructed enter service, we need to source additional tonnage in the immediate term. 

“I would be grateful therefore for an update as to the progress of government agencies in locating, for charter or purchase, suitable spare vessels. In particular, I would appreciate an indication of the most recent instances when Transport Scotland or CMAL approached the owners of MV Pentalina or MV Arrow concerning vessel charter or purchase.”

And he ends his letter to his fellow politician with a call to action, saying: “Island communities have made it clear that any intervention must happen with urgency. It must also reflect the size of the problem.

“You will appreciate that the concerns expressed about that issue reflect a growing worry about what services will look like this winter. 

“I know you realise the extent of the problem, but I feel I must again pass on to you some indication of the level of concern that now exists and which is being expressed to me on an hourly basis.”