The ending of the triangle ferry route linking North Uist, Harris and Skye and the provision of dedicated ferry links to the mainland for Harris and North Uist, is fundamental for the future of the local economy, according to local business leaders.
The call comes in the wake of a summit meeting held in Uist last week chaired by Western Isles MSP, Dr Alasdair Allan, and attended by the Scottish Government Minister with portfolio responsibility for ferries and islands, Paul Wheelhouse MSP, CalMac, the Comhairle, HIE and local business and community leaders, to discuss ‘the significant disruption and timetable changes ferry services for Uist have experienced over the course of the last year’.
But, whilst the summit was welcomed as a step forward in ensuring local views are heard by the government and CalMac, warnings of the economic impact if changes are not made, were stressed.
Hector Stewart, Managing Director of Kallin Seafoods and the successful Namara brand which employs 28 people in Grimsay, said: “We are having a terrible time with the service.
“I do not believe that we can ever get a reliable service in Uist as long as CalMac persist with the triangle. We need a vessel based in Lochmaddy, leaving the port every morning. It would transform the Uist economy at a stroke.
“We have been 18 years in business and in that time the logistics have got worse and not better, although it must be said that fares are cheaper.
“I do think that we will have the same problems next year, but I do believe that at last we are being listened to. It is just that action is too slow as the triangle has been persisted with for far too long.
“In the absence of a dedicated ferry from Lochmaddy any business such as ours should be located on the mainland .What we are trying to do is provide employment in our own location with all the benefits that brings to the community.”
ISLAY HAS TWO FERRIES FOR WHISKY
Mary Schmoller, Chairperson of SnBM said: “Storas Uibhist was pleased that our MSP had called the summit, in recognition of the serious issues that we face here in Uist.
“All sectors of the economy as well as families are impacted upon by the disruption to ferries.
“The tourist reduction in spend has impacted on the annual figures for several local business who may have to reduce their opening over the winter to compensate for the losses.
“Fishermen, who are the backbone of the local economy, were left in serious difficulty getting their goods to markets in the UK and abroad.
“Crofters were impacted in the autumn with the cancellation of sales and the lambs not being able to be returned once separated, impacting on the prices when sales were held.
“From a Uist perspective, it is also interesting to note that Islay has two ferries to meet the commercial need of the distilleries, but the needs of the people on other islands, with a less lucrative cargo were left to wait.
“Whisky does not go off in the bottle, a live langoustine can only survive a short time outside its ideal conditions.”
CALL FOR DEDICATED FERRY FOR LOCHMADDY AND TARBERT BY 2022
Chair of the Comhairle’s Transportation and Infrastructure, Cllr Uisdean Robertson, said: “The Ferry Summit allowed the Uist community to have a full and frank discussion with the Minister on the need for investment in ferry services to and from the mainland.
“We appreciate the fact that the Minister showed an interest in the needs of the community by attending this important meeting. The fact that he suffered from the vagaries of Uist weather might have helped him understand the difficulties we all face on a day to day basis.
“The Minister’s flight was cancelled and he had to spend an extra night in Uist. One of the strong messages from the summit was that the delay in delivery of the new ferry is having a very negative effect on the Uist economy.
“Measures must be put in place to ensure that once the new ferry is finally delivered that consideration should be given to Lochmaddy and Tarbert having a dedicated ferry each by 2022.
“The Lochboisdale to Mallaig route should also have its own dedicated ferry and reliability on that route must be improved to give passengers confidence that the ferry will sail when they have booked it.
“Uist must have the same connectivity as has been delivered to other islands of smaller or similar populations including Islay, Mull and Arran. We certainly take comfort from the fact that we believe that the minister understands that there are significant problems and work must be done to try and solve these particularly over the next 18 months. We also must push hard to ensure that Calmac begin the process of relocating jobs to the island over the next few years.”
Commenting after the meeting, Alasdair Allan MSP said: “This was a very useful and productive meeting. By getting all the key players in the same room we were able to have a comprehensive look at Uist’s ferry services.
“There was an assurance that the Government would investigate any potential vessels for leasing that were viable and fulfilled the objective of providing resilience across the network.
“The Minister agreed to see, amongst other things, what could be done to improve Calmac’s booking system, with Calmac also to review how passengers are kept up to date in the event of cancelled or delayed sailings.
“With the financial constraints the Scottish Government faces as a result a budget cut of nearly £2 billion since 2010 by the UK Government, it is important that we make the best possible case that we can for further funding and investment in ferries services. I think the summit has certainly strengthened that case.”
CalMac’s Managing Director, Robbie Drummond said: “Last week’s Summit gave us an opportunity to hear first hand the concerns that communities on the Uists have about the ferry service.
“It also gave us an opportunity to share with community representatives an outline of the improvements we are making to the way we communicate with customers and how we will improve vessel resilience.
“It was a positive meeting and we look forward to continuing to work with all parties to deliver a ferry service which meets community needs and promotes sustainable economic growth in the islands we support.”
LEARNING LESSONS FROM SUMMER 2018
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands informed the Summit that he has commissioned an Action Plan for summer 2019 which is being developed by Transport Scotland and CalMac.
“This will look at learning lessons from summer 2018 and be informed by passenger and community experiences, and discussions held with stakeholders over the last two months.
“The discussion in Uist was invaluable in giving a real insight into the challenges faced by passengers, communities and businesses in the Outer Hebrides when ferry services are disrupted and an opportunity to discuss possible mitigation measures, as well as to understand the potential for economic growth in sectors such as tourism.
“The involvement of CalMac, CMAL, Hitrans, HIE and the Comhairle ensured that a wide range of government agencies were there to engage. The Minister outlined to the stakeholders that have also commissioned a strategic transport appraisal of Outer Hebrides services that will identify costed service and investment options for the long-term.”
DAILY STRUGGLE HIGHLIGHTED
But for Hector Stewart, whilst plans are made for future years, the daily struggle his business faces in getting a fragile product to market remain, he concluded: “I wish the answer to my business problems were as obvious.
“We have to run all our product to Larkhall, south of Glasgow. We only have an early morning ferry from Lochmaddy on alternate days and we have a six to seven hour journey through heavy traffic, bad roads, road works and accidents to get to our destination. We have a deadline to meet for trucks going to the continent and the London market.
“Uist is the only place in Scotland from which you cannot meet the deadline (including Shetland). What does this do for the quality of our shellfish and its short shelf life?
“Increasingly, product is being flown to China from Scottish airports and all the work for this is being created on the mainland instead of here where the product comes from due to poor transport links.”