Local ferry company is the way ahead
Mr Robertson’s intervention adds powerful weight to the case for reconsidering an edict by First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, which categorically ruled out “unbundling” along with privatisation – though, as Mr Robertson makes clear, they are two different issues.
Councillor Robertson recommends an “unbundling” which would give considerable autonomy to a new islands-based company while still using the Caledonian MacBrayne brand. It would, he argues, be “disappointing” to rule such a model out in advance and points to the lessons which could be learned from the Norwegian model.
The former leader of the Comhairle, Angus Campbell, has been asked by the Scottish Government to carry out a consultation based on the recent Ernst & Young report on “Project Neptune” – a review of the current structure for procuring and operating west coast ferry services. However, the Transport Minister, Jenny Gilruth, made clear at Holyrood that the consultation would be within limitations set in advance by Ms Sturgeon.
Mr Robertson describes the Ernst & Young conclusions as “hardly earth shattering” and adds: “Ministers have already limited the potential for change by insisting that the large single bundle Clyde and Hebrides ferry service network will remain intact.
“This decision means the Norwegian system of ferry service procurement where local authorities have a much greater say in the management and specification of contracts has been removed from the table. This even though Ernst & Young themselves have recognised that ferry services in Norway operate longer days, lock down ferry service jobs in their local area, have newer ferries and are moving rapidly towards zero carbon ferry services. In short, the ferry services appear to deliver for the people.”
Mr Robertson continues: “Comhairle nan Eilean Siar recognise the fondness people have for the Caledonian MacBrayne brand. It is synonymous with the islands of the west. However, we have previously suggested that a smaller Western Isles bundle could be established for our ferry service operations which could still operate under the Caledonian MacBrayne brand with marketing and ticketing delivered collectively and revenue apportioned to each bundle based on ticket sales. It works for trainline so why not for ferries?
“Such a system would allow a new company to manage our ferry services from a Western Isles base with job opportunities maximised and resilience built in within our own network. For Ministers to rule this out without seeking views from anyone with a real stake in the ferry services is disappointing.”
Writing in Am Paipear, Mr Robertson also expresses concerns that the model apparently favoured by the Scottish Government – a merger of CalMac and CMAL – would lead to even greater centralisation and “disinterest” in islanders’ opinions.
Gazette editorial: The comments from Uisdean Robertson, who has done so much to highlight issues surrounding ferry services in the Western Isles, highlight the foolishness of ruling out in advance radical options for the way they are run.
Why bother consulting when most of what needs to be consulted upon has been excluded from consideration?
What was the point of paying Ernst & Young hundreds of thousands of pounds to tell us what happens in other countries when our own “consultation” specifically excludes the same options?
There would still be strong suspicion of private operators taking over the CalMac network. However, the essential point is that “unbundling” and privatisation are two different concepts.
For Nicola Sturgeon to lump them together in order to exclude both from debate is irrational.
As Mr Robertson points out, it is possible to have a public sector model which also includes decentralisation to a new Hebridean company, bringing jobs and decision-making to the heart of the communities affected.
There is no holy writ which decrees that Caledonian MacBrayne must cover the entire west coast as a single entity.
The ball is now in the court of Angus Campbell, who has been charged with leading a consultation. He should tell the Scottish Government that he will only do so if the constraints confirmed this week are lifted.
Otherwise, there is little point in what would amount to a cosmetic exercise.