Ferry crisis 'existential threat' for island communities, report warns

The report raises concern about the 'churn' of transport ministers over the last 18 months.

Island communities face an “existential threat” without clear leadership to resolve Scotland’s ferry crisis, it has been has warned.

The warning came as the Net, Zero, Energy and Transport Committee published its report into what future ferry provision should look like as state-owned CalMac’s ageing fleet comes under pressure after it cancelled sailings to South Uist for most of June.

Meanwhile, it awaits delivery of two new ferries being constructed at the Ferguson Marine yard in Port Glasgow, which are years late and massively over budget.

The report raises concern about the “churn” of transport ministers, with three different post-holders within 18 months.

Jenny Gilruth held the role from January 2022 but Kevin Stewart was given the brief in March following Humza Yousaf’s appointment as First Minister.

However, he resigned earlier this month for mental health reasons, with Fiona Hyslop selected to replace him.

The report noted: “Far too many ferry services in Scotland are unacceptably unreliable. This is causing real damages to communities, particularly those dependent on Clyde and Hebridean ferry services.

“For more fragile island communities, consistently unreliable services risk becoming a literal existential threat.”

And while the ageing fleet was noted as a key factor for the service woes, the committee said: “It is our view that another factor contributing to under-performing ferry services has been a lack of continuity in political leadership, with most recent transport ministers lasting no more than 18 months in the role.

“Ferry-dependent communities in Scotland need continuity and confidence at ministerial level. They need a champion in government with the knowledge, experience and staying power to push through the reforms and improvements the sector now urgently needs. This requires an end to churn in the transport minister role.”

However committee convener Edward Mountain said Hyslop, who worked on the report while the committee’s deputy convener before taking up the ministerial role, had “experience of the issues covered and wish her well in her new role”.

The report also said that to avoid further disruption to the services, it would support a direct award of the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Service 3 contract for an extended period of 10 years, but said “real improvements” must follow.

It also asks the Scottish Government to consider creating a Ferries Scotland arm of Transport Scotland to streamline decision-making.

Mr Mountain added: “On this occasion, to ensure continuity and avoid disruption we are supportive of a direct award of the ferry contract to CalMac but we stress that this is wholly dependent upon significant service improvements being delivered and a change to the tripartite agreement.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Scottish ministers welcome receipt of the report and thank the committee for its detailed work.

“In particular we support the strong emphasis the committee placed on hearing from the communities who use the services and we agree that the voices of ferry users need to be a focus of future ferries policy and investment.

“We will carefully consider the recommendations of the report and respond to the committee in due course.”

Katy Clark MSP, who represents island communities in the west of Scotland for Scottish Labour, said: “The situation facing island communities is unacceptable and is only going to get worse.

“The failure of the Scottish Government to procure a new fleet over many years has left us with an ageing fleet which is breaking down more often.

“Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix. The economies of island communities are taking a huge hit and islanders can’t rely on the service to get them to medical appointments, work or other commitments on the mainland.

“The ministerial churn has compounded the problem. The Scottish Government needs to own the situation and obtain the emergency funding to procure new vessels – including, if necessary, asking the Westminster government to provide assistance.”

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