Island proofing is a concept where central Government is mindful of how decisions taken impact on Scotland’s fragile islands.
The concept is part of the backbone to the ‘Islands Bill’, which made its way through the Scottish Parliament earlier this year, ensuring greater protections for these vulnerable regions.
But many believe that in reality the west coast Islands, and their residents, have been ignored in regards to lifeline ferry links and their support to grow economies locally.
The suitability of the MV Loch Seaforth, which services the Stornoway to Ullapool route, has been in question almost since its first day of operation four years ago.
Many were sceptical that this single vessel could meet the pressure of demand on a route which had been previously serviced by two ships.
This criticism has proven correct and availability on the vessel at peak times during the summer is at a premium.
Despite some efforts by Calmac to deal with this demand by introducing increased sailings the problem continues and critics say the economy and Island businesses, who need good links to the mainland, are being failed by the Scottish Government.
When Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant highlighted last week that the financing of this ferry - reported to be costing the public purse £53m (its full construction cost) for only an 8 year lease, and with no indication of its final cost over a 25 to 30 year lifespan, concerns were also raised about ‘best value’ to the taxpayer.
The Gazette asked Transport Scotland about the MV Loch Seaforth financing, a spokesman detailed: “The financing was driven by the need to maintain investment during a period of constrained capital budgets.
“This investment has delivered a larger, faster and more reliable vessel with greater capacity than the two that it replaced.”
The department were also able to confirm that the financing for two new vessels, currently under construction - although facing build delays, will be financed “using conventional Government capital funding, as set out in the 2012 Ferries Plan”.
Island ferry services and their costs has provided rich material for Scottish Labour, who are keen to highlight local concerns.
Scottish Labour Leader Richard Leonard was in Stornoway last Friday to listen to the issues and met with various local politicians and groups to come up with a plan to help find solutions to travel demands.
He also highlighted the need for further information on ferry financing and finding out more about the delay to a new vessel for the Uig-Lochmaddy-Tarbert route, which had been due to enter service in 2018, but will now be delayed until 2020.
As yet no explanation for this delay, and another vessel under construction the ‘MV Glen Sannox’, which is due to take up service on the Arran route in 2019, is forthcoming from either Transport Scotland or Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL).
In regards to whether financial penalties will be imposed because of these delays on Ferguson Marine Engineering Limited (FMEL), the shipyard building the ferries, a spokesperson for CMAL said this week: “Within the design and build contract between CMAL and FMEL, there are clauses for matters of late delivery, excessive fuel consumption, speed deficiency and deadweight deficiency.
“These are all matters which are determined and quantified at the point of delivery, and not during the build process.”
CONSTRAINTS TO GROWTH
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar recently expressed its disappointment and frustration to the delay of the new ferry for the Uig-Lochmaddy-Tarbert route.
Councillor Uisdean Robertson, Chair of the Comhairle’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said: “We were of course delighted to hear in October 2014 of the Scottish Government’s intentions to build two new vessels, one of which was to be allocated on the routes to Harris and North Uist.
“At that time, the delivery of the vessel was scheduled for early 2018 and since then representatives from the Comhairle have worked productively with colleagues from Transport Scotland, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL) and CalMac Ferries Ltd to inform the design of the vessel and the scope, design and procurement of infrastructure improvements required at the Lochmaddy pier to accommodate her.
“There has been much speculation around timescales recently and whilst we recognise the benefits the building of the two new vessels on the Clyde will bring to the economy of that area and welcome that a handover date has now been confirmed by the responsible Cabinet Secretary, we are disappointed that there will a delay of now well over two years to the final availability.
“This is a significant and critical issue for the islands in that the continuing lack of capacity during the peak summer period will mean continuing constraints to the growth of important business sectors in the islands such as tourism and aquaculture.
“We urge the Government and CMAL to ensure that, going forward, sufficient resources are targeted to the build projects, so that there is no further risk to the handover and in-service dates.”
LABOUR CAN’T POINT THE FINGER
With criticisms being levelled at Government in regards to forward planning, investment, costs and build delays, the Gazette asked Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan to give his view on the issue.
He said: “Nobody underestimates the importance of investing in ferry services, and the SNP in Government has doubled Scotland’s ferry budget since coming to office. Over a billion pounds has been invested in Clyde and Hebrides ferry services in that time.
“There is always more we can do however, which is why as local MSP, I have recently been raising the need for more capacity in the summer, a better booking system and other issues,” but the MSP argued that Scottish Labour were in no position to take the moral high ground, he added: “Labour are not in a great position to point fingers here.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is catching up on a period over ten years ago when virtually no major vessels were being built.
“I also recall that Labour were dismissive locally of RET fares which have slashed ferry costs in recent years. They may wish to consider more constructive ways of raising what are undoubtedly vitally important issues.”