CalMac appointment is an ‘insult’ to the islands

The appointment of Erik Østergaard as chair of David MacBrayne Limited, the parent company of CalMac, has been greeted with a mixture of astonishment and outrage.

Thursday, 9th December 2021, 8:49 am
Erik Østergaard (left) receiving his Honorary OBE from British Ambassador Dominic Schroeder in February 2020

Jim McColl, the Scottish Government’s nemesis in the Ferguson scandal, said that Mr Østergaard, who will stand down as CMAL chairman to take up the CalMac role “should have been sent packing back to Denmark four years ago”.

Questions have been tabled at Holyrood about the appointment process and who recommended to Ministers that a key post for island communities should go to an individual at the centre of such serious related controversy.

The usual procedure is for civil servants to draw up a shortlist of “appointable” individuals who are then interviewed by a panel which makes a recommendation to Ministers.

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While virtually unknown in the islands, Mr Østergaard is regarded as a Scottish Government ally in the Ferguson affair and the fact he “knows where the bodies are buried” will have done his prospects no harm in the eyes of either Transport Scotland civil servants or ministers.

To many, the appointment seems like a public endorsement of CMAL’s role in the Ferguson affair which has resulted in two ferries being five years late and still far from completed, with costs mounting towards £300 million.

The former chairman of Ferguson Marine, Jim McColl, described the appointment as “absolutely astounding”. Mr McColl has consistently blamed CMAL for the failures that unfolded at the Port Glasgow yard by demanding repeated changes to the design of the vessels.

Speaking to the Gazette this week, Mr McColl said: “I think it is appalling to put him in as chair of CalMac. He is the person at the core of the two ferries debacle. I didn’t think there was anything more the Scottish Government could do that would surprise me, but this beggars belief”.

Mr McColl drew a comparison with delays to two ferries in Quebec but that ended with a very different outcome. He said: “The chairman and the CEO of STQ (the Quebec equivalent of CMAL) lost their jobs. Had the Scottish Government supported an independent expert process to resolve the dispute between CMAL and Ferguson, I have no doubt the same outcome would have happened here.

“It is incredible that these two individuals, at the head of CMAL, are still in post. It’s even more incredible that the Scottish Government have announced that the CMAL chairman is to be appointed as the chairman of CalMac. He should have been sent packing back to Denmark four years ago”

The Conservative MSP who chaired the all-party Holyrood committee which investigated the Ferguson affair, and unanimously found “catastrophic failure”, was equally scathing. Edward Mountain said that CMAL under Mr Østergaard was “a major part of the failure”.

He added: “It is absolutely astounding to see the current chair of CMAL being rewarded with a new chairmanship at David MacBrayne Ltd. What kind of message does this send to the island communities affected by the ferries fiasco?

“The Committee were very clear as to where serious changes are required. However, I believe this appointment shows that the SNP Government are only interested in rearranging chairs while the hopes of island communities are left to sink in the face of old ferries breaking down and new ferries remaining unfinished”.

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, Rhoda Grant, tabled a series of questions at Holyrood seeking information on the process that led to Mr Østergaard’s appointment. She was “utterly astonished” that Mr Østergaard would now be leading CalMac while communities continue to pay the price for the failings of CMAL under his leadership.

She said: “I’m sure they will try to conceal information about the way this ridiculous appointment was made but we need to get to the bottom of it. It is deeply insulting to island communities.

“There are precedents for being open about who was on the panel that recommended the appointment and that is one of the questions I have asked though ultimately it is SNP Ministers who must answer for this in every island community”.

In spite of being on the CMAL board since its inception 14 years ago and chairman since 2014, Mr Øostergaard is virtually unknown outside his immediate circle in the Scottish Government and CMAL. Uisdean Robertson, long-standing chair of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s transportation committee, said: “I think I met him once in Stornoway years ago.

“People are really quite angry and upset about the whole thing. It shows how closed the system is. You could hardly say that CMAL have been a shining light for anything in recent years”.

There is no record of Mr Østergaard giving an interview during his seven years as CMAL chairman or expressing any views on the future of ferry services. The Gazette tried to contact him in Copenhagen this week and will continue to do so.

His main job is as chief executive of a trade body, Danish Transport Logistics. Before joining DTL in 2005, he was operations director of Scandlines which operates ferries between Denmark and Germany.

In January 2020, he was given the Golden Badge of Honour for services to the Republic of Austria and a month later received an Honorary OBE – presumably on the recommendation of the Scottish Government – “in recognition of the great effort you have made for the shipping and transport sector”.​​​​​​​