Taxpayers ‘robbed’ by overbudget ferry construction

Lord Robertson urged Scottish ministers to work with island communities to devolve the operation of local services.

Scottish taxpayers ‘robbed’ by overbudget ferry construction, Lord Robertson warns STV News

The construction of two delayed and overbudget ferries has “robbed taxpayers”, Lord Robertson claimed as he criticised the Scottish Government’s handling of island issues.

The Labour peer and former defence secretary from Tony Blair’s government is set to retire from his role as chairman of Western Ferries, a privately-owned firm operating between Gourock and Dunoon, at the end of the year.

But before he steps aside, he has urged Scottish ministers to work with island communities to devolve the operation of local services.

He said the “fiasco” at the Ferguson Marine Shipyard in Port Glasgow, which has seen two new vessels built to bolster Caledonian MacBrayne’s (CalMac) fleet in the west of Scotland, set back by multi-year delays and significant overspends.

It is estimated the Glen Sannox and Glen Rosa vessels will accumulate a £360m price tag by completion, despite initial contracts having estimated a total of £97m.

Lord Robertson, former general secretary of Nato, told the PA news agency: “The taxpayers are being robbed here. These will probably be the most expensive ferries in the world. They probably could have been gold-plated and would have saved money.

“It’s a sad reflection on Scotland today, where we used to build the great liners of the world. It is now reduced to one shipyard that can’t apparently build two simple car ferries.”

Meanwhile, he accused the Scottish Government of losing focus on island communities following significant disruption to lifeline ferry services in the summer.

“The communities based on the islands have been compromised, affected, limited, and in some cases destroyed by the fact the lifeline links have been relegated in the way they have,” said Lord Robertson, who was born in Islay and raised in Dunoon.

“In recent years, the rural and the islands, especially, seem to have been relegated and forgotten. I think that is a scandal because Scotland is made up of a whole series of communities but if it is all centralised in the central belt then the island and rural communities get a raw deal.”

Lord Robertson, who was also shadow Scottish secretary prior to entering government in 1997, said the initial plan for devolution was for authority to be further “devolved inside Scotland” to give islanders control of the services they rely on.

He also criticised the potential plan to directly award the Clyde and Hebrides contracts to CalMac without the putting it out to tender in the usual way.

The Scottish Government has said they are exploring the direct award, but stressed it would not be “business as usual” for the service which has faced criticism over its reliability.

Lord Robertson said: “Simply handing the contract to Caledonian MacBrayne is the wrong answer from the point of view of the taxpayer.

“It doesn’t allow for competition, and it allows the existing model to continue. But the fact is, in previous times when it has been open to competition, the taxpayer pays for the cost of putting together the Caledonian MacBrayne bid and the private, anybody challenging Caledonian MacBrayne finds itself having to pick up a very enormous bill for putting together a bid.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As ministers have previously set out, the rising costs and delays are deeply disappointing.

“The Scottish Government’s priorities have always been and remain the completion of the two ferries, securing a future for the yard and its workforce and supporting our island communities that rely on this type of vessel on a daily basis.”

CalMac chief executive Robbie Drummond said: “We will continue to work in partnership with local stakeholders and communities to ensure the best possible outcomes for all who rely on our services.

“We are also looking forward to welcoming six major and 10 small vessels into the fleet in the near future, which will build capacity and resilience across our network.”

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