Fighting to counter a timetable of failure

Contrary to the impression sometimes given, there are councillors in the Western Isles who put their hearts and souls into what they are doing – which is essentially to improve services and living standards for island communities.

Friday, 26th November 2021, 10:50 am
A large part of the problem surrounds the fiasco of the new ferries at the Ferguson yard

None better personifies that good and necessary side of council work than Uisdean Robertson from North Uist who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and has become the go-to political voice of the islands on transport issues.

While the antics of HIAL also kept him busy for much of the year, “transport” usually tends to mean “ferries” and there has hardly been a week of the past year when Uisdean has not been firefighting the varied issues which turned Caledonian MacBrayne services into a game of chance.

When he wrote to CalMac this week to lodge the Comhairle’s objections to the proposed timetable for next summer, Uisdean signed off with the line: “At the last tendering round we were urged to ‘Keep Calmac and Carry On’; instead we see a ferry service delivered in a way that all too often resembles the plot of a Carry On film.”

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Uisdean, who previously worked for the Comhairle’s environmental health department, says that no previous issue has united affected islands in such fury. “I have never seen such annoyance,” he says. “It is unusual to get everyone on the same side and that is what has happened in this case”.

The proposed cuts, particularly over the crucial weekends, were bad enough. But the reasoning behind them provoked outrage and even astonishment when it emerged the cost of maintaining the 2019 timetable would be a very precise £816,000 – a figure helpfully provided by Caledonian MacBrayne in a briefing to the Harris Forum.

Some suspect this unusual willingness to share a number reflected CalMac’s frustration over again getting the blame for something that is not their fault.

The decision on whether to make the money available rests entirely with the Scottish Government and that is the battle now being engaged in.

This entire situation has only arisen because of events at the Ferguson shipyard in Port Glasgow where “Vessel 802” remains half-built. If the order had been completed on time, she would have been on the Uig-Tarbert-Lochmaddy triangle three years ago. Now the most optimistic prediction is the summer of 2023.

Whatever tolerance may exist for this debacle, it is now under severe pressure from the crude admission that the communities are expected to pick up the tab for a situation which is none of their making, while those responsible in Edinburgh refuse to fund even the most obvious consequences.

Not only is this reneging upon moral obligation, but also contractual ones. Uisdean wrote: “Your Timetable Options document set out two alternative proposals which each represents a loss of capacity on ferry services across the Little Minch from the service Calmac Ferries committed to deliver under the terms of the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Service Contract.

“The two timetable proposals have been met with widespread condemnation and anger from the communities affected. There is an overwhelming majority against any further loss of ferry service or capacity on these routes which have already suffered since 2018 from the failure to deliver the promised increase in capacity as a result of the delayed delivery of vessel 802.

“The Calmac options note suggests the reason these proposals have been made is as a response to significant growth in traffic demand in recent years”, write Uisdean. CalMac argued that an increase in pre-pandemic traffic caused “recurrent delays to timetable, seriously impacting crew Hours of Rest and resulted in cancellations to services to ensure crew are provided compensatory rest. These delays and cancellations have had a serious detrimental effect on the local community and the overall customer experience.”

In other words, CalMac seemed to be claiming that the ferry had become so busy that it is doing everyone a favour to cut back on the timetable – or as an alternative, close the mezzanine deck and reduce capacity by 20 per cent. To say the least, that is a strange interpretation of the problem CalMac have been left to address.

According to Uisdean Robertson, it’s also not true. For the simple reason that the Hebrides operates pretty much at capacity throughout the summer, “carryings have remained quite consistent over the years” – and he quotes figures to prove it. Any service disruption, he argues, has resulted from the failure to deliver “Vessel 802” and now island communities are being asked to pay the price.

As for the “alternative” of closing the mezzanine deck, Uisdean seems pretty contemptuous of this attempt to use Covid as a foot-in-the-door for a crafty longer-term move. He writes: “Our agreement to this was on condition that it was a necessary short term action to stop the spread of Coronavirus and we strongly advocated for the return to full capacity when lockdown eased – a position we were pleased to see Calmac act upon when physical distancing limits eased in August 2021.

"This was never an acceptable option other than as a response to the national emergency that the country was facing”. His excellent letter is published in full on pages 6-7.

The Harris Forum has also come into its own over this issue as an umbrella organisation for the community which has made its voice heard in no uncertain terms, highlighting a £3 million risk to the Western Isles economy, so that the Scottish Government can avoid spending £816,000 on something they are responsible for – and also obliging CalMac to meet its contractual obligations.

The waters were further muddied when Alasdair Allan MSP spoke about a possible “compromise” which he had put forward. No details were provided and a hare was set running. What was this “compromise” which Graeme Dey seemed anxious to consider?

There had certainly been no consultation about it with any of the key players.

Kenny MacLeod, chair of the Harris Forum, promptly wrote to Mr Allan expressing “dismay” over his intervention. “Can I just repeat that anything that does not include the full service that was provided in all the other years of this service (apart from the COVID disrupted period) will not be acceptable to the Harris and Uist communities”

He continued: “The communities of Harris and Uist should not be getting punished and people potentially put out of business because CalMac have got their figures wrong or costs have gone up. If they haven’t inflation proofed their contract then that is their problem.

”It is incumbent on the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland to ensure that CalMac continue to provide the full contracted service that they signed up to. If not, every other company and organisation that is faced with increased costs will see the CalMac case as a precedent to not meet their contractual obligations.”

Kenny MacLeod told Mr Allan: “I trust that you will correct the Transport Minister and ensure he has the clear and unambiguous feedback from the communities here that he needs to ensure CalMac meet their obligations and continue to provide the service level and capacity that they have been doing since the current contract started”.

Unsurprisingly, Uisdean Robertson takes a similar view. “Any compromise,” he said, “is a lessening of the service. I have been talking to a lot of people, including the Community Board, and nobody knows what the compromise is”. That too remains unresolved at time of writing – but to the key island players, it sounded a bit like selling the jerseys before a ball was kicked.

Uisdean says that he has reasonably good personal relations with the quangos and civil servants he deals with but adds: “There is a lot wrong with the way CalMac are operating. I think the problem is that neither they nor Transport Scotland understand island life. They don’t fully appreciate the damage all this is doing.

“Look at Barra where the service has been absolutely appalling. The impact on Barratlantic, which is a huge employer by island standards, has been pretty devastating but unless you live on an island and are close to the consequences on a daily basis, these kind of things aren’t appreciated. They don’t really get it”.

It’s also worth reverting to the root cause of the latest furore – which is the fact that two unfinished hulks, entirely the responsibility of Scottish Government ministers, are lying nowhere near completion in Port Glasgow. Ferry guru Roy Pedersen forecasts the final cost as £300 million. Some, including Edward Moumtain MSP, doubt if they will be finished even within the latest timescales, or perhaps at all.

Mr Mountain, who chaired a Holyrood committee which unanimously described the Ferguson debacle as a “catastrophic failure”, recently did some sterling work through Freedom of Information legislation about the Scottish Government’s appointment of Tim Hair as “turnaround director” at Ferguson’s.

He discovered that Mr Hair was appointed on astonishingly lucrative terms on the recommendation of two civil servants who had never actually met him – and this was before the pandemic. Mr Hair has, over less than two years, been paid £1.3 milllion – considerably more than the sum supposedly necessary to maintain the Uig-Tarbert-Lochmaddy service at

contracted levels.

Ah, I hear them say, but that comes out of a different budget. Well, yes and no. At the end of the day, it is all one big pot of taxpayers’ money and an open-ended commitment to finish the construction of Vessels 801 and 802 might reasonably include enough small change to sustain at least the pre-existing service for the communities at the sharp end of a political failure.

There not much room for compromise on that principle and a belated apology would not go wrong, either.