Harbour upgrade could become a bigger soap opera than new ferry

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This will come as no surprise to those living on Arran. Shocking perhaps, but not surprising. In the last few years Arran has had an ever worsening ferry service. Businesses and jobs are in jeopardy and, despite continual promises from Scottish ministers, there seems no end and no solution to the problem. But let’s be clear: the current situation was predictable. The woeful level of ferry service currently being suffered by islanders was never inevitable. There are two major policy decisions, both taken on political grounds by the Scottish Government, that make these failures a true scandal.

The first such decision was the Scottish Government’s introduction of a subsidy to ferry fares under the pretence that they were delivering a system called Road Equivalent Tariff (RET).  But, as many residents of Arran will know, the fares subsidy is only a part of a full RET system. It is basic economics that a fares subsidy will result in greater use of the service, meaning the ferries will wear out more quickly. In practical terms a ferry with a predicted life of 25 years, having to make more trips carrying more cars and foot passengers may only have a useful life of 20 years. This in turn means, under a full RET system, you have to plan to build replacement vessels to an accelerated schedule. Unfortunately, and disgracefully, the Scottish Government made no such plans.

The truly astonishing and unforgivable fact is that the tonnage of vessels launched 2007-2021, under the SNP, is half the tonnage that joined the fleet in the previous 14 years. The result is an ageing fleet which fails more often and needs constant maintenance and is too often out of service with no back-up vessels available. The symptom of the problem may be operational failure, but there can be no doubt that the real failure lies at the door of the Scottish Government’s lack of strategic planning. It is little short of criminal negligence to introduce a ferry subsidy but not to implement the other improvements necessary to deal with the inevitable consequences of the extra traffic generated by the subsidy.

The second fatal decision, directly pertinent to Arran, was to award the ferry contracts for two radically new ferry designs to Ferguson of Port Glasgow under a senior management with SNP sympathies but no experience in shipbuilding. Whether the yard could deliver the ferries on time and on specification was apparently of secondary importance to the impression of politicians riding to the rescue. But the price has been paid by the islanders in disgraceful ferry services and broken promises. It is no exaggeration to say that the present situation amounts to a betrayal of the islands and island residents.

Which brings us to Ardrossan harbour and the repeated delays to the upgrades necessary to accommodate the new vessel – should it ever arrive. It is proving frustratingly difficult to achieve agreement between and among the Scottish Government, Peel Ports and the various arms of government involved. I fear that if a decision is not taken soon the harbour upgrade will become a bigger soap opera than the MV Glen Sannox. Which raises the question, as suggested by Katy Clark MSP: Is it now time to bring the harbour back into public ownership? It would certainly reduce the number of organisations with influence on the project, reduce the complexity of decision making and give the people of North Ayrshire a measure of control over one of their most important public assets.

It is five years since the Labour administration in NAC led the successful campaign to save the Ardrossan-Brodick route in anticipation of hosting a new ferry. Those years have been a rollercoaster of emotions and expectations. It is frustrating that some of these expectations have not come to fruition but we will continue to fight for the service that we believe the people of Arran and North Ayrshire need and deserve.