Scotland ferries: Caledonian MacBrayne should be treated as national treasure: Ian McConnell

TRAVELLING to Arran with Caledonian MacBrayne on Monday, the excitement and broad smiles of many of the passengers provided a reminder there is much to love about the state-owned ferry operator’s services.

Much of the summer has been dominated, unfortunately, by news of vessel breakdowns and troubles, major and more minor, and associated disruption to services.

Delays and cancellations, of course, do have a major effect on individuals and businesses, particularly those based on the islands.

However, amid a whirlwind of criticism and political carping, it is crucial not to lose sight of the context, and the bigger and longer-term picture.

It is also vital short-term problems are not allowed to be used by various actors to push for a private-sector operator to run the lifeline Clyde and Hebridean ferry services delivered by Caledonian MacBrayne (through the ultimately state-owned CalMac Ferries Ltd corporate vehicle).

Talk of privatisation is not new, of course. The Tories made a big noise about it way back in the early 1990s, when the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry services thankfully remained under state control.

Back then, though islanders had some complaints about the ferry services, there was strong support for the continuation of Caledonian MacBrayne as their operator.

What it is crucial to remember amid the current woe is that the vessel breakdowns and troubles essentially amount to an investment issue. And the huge delays in the two ferries due to be delivered by Ferguson Marine, the Port Glasgow yard which is now in the hands of the Scottish Government, are the result of procurement and contract execution woes.

Caledonian MacBrayne must operate with the fleet with which it is provided.

In this regard, when weighing the root causes of current difficulties, we must look at the investment decisions relating to Caledonian MacBrayne over several decades rather than years.

Of course, the SNP has been at the helm in Scotland since 2007 and, as well as having been in charge for a while, it has a responsibility to act swiftly to solve the current crisis.

We must also remember the part that Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL) plays in procuring the vessels operated by Caledonian MacBrayne.

The troubles with the Ferguson Marine contract for the two long-delayed and heavily over-budget new ferries for Caledonian MacBrayne have, of course, never been far from the headlines and have filled many column inches. People will have different perspectives on what exactly went wrong.

However, it is crucial the waters do not become muddied here and that investment and procurement issues do not become confused with operational matters.

Hopefully we have, given major issues with rail privatisation over years before the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on that sector, moved on from the notion put in so many people’s heads from the Thatcher era onwards that private-sector ownership is good and state control bad. That somehow the former is efficient and the latter is not. Time has told a different story.

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We have seen the collapse of privatised track owner Railtrack and subsequent formation of the not-for-profit Network Rail.

Various passenger rail franchises ran into trouble – requiring Government intervention – before the pandemic hit.

The rail sector has, surely, provided undeniable proof that privatisation is not always the preferable route.

Meanwhile, Scottish Water has shown what a state-run operation can achieve, in terms of efficiency and value for money, with a long-term view and large-scale investment. This type of long-term vision is the antithesis of the short-sighted, quarter-by-quarter corporate cost-cutting, and is exactly what is needed in sectors that by their nature require major, thought-through investment to function well.

Never mind the current blaze of publicity: Caledonian MacBrayne has provided a crucial service, generally very well, over years and decades.

The importance of the lifeline services it delivers seems deeply engrained in its workforce, and the ferry operator has a deep knowledge of the island communities it serves.

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CalMac Ferries Ltd, a subsidiary of Scottish Government-owned David MacBrayne Ltd, won the second Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services contract, running from October 1, 2016 for up to eight years. At the time of the award, the subsidy was £868 million for the eight-year period, and it was later increased following approved contract variations. Private operator Serco had made a rival bid.

In recent months, amid non-weather-related disruption to Caledonian MacBrayne services and with various politicians at pains to make hay over the albeit highly regrettable delays and troubles over the contract for the two ferries awarded to Ferguson Marine, it has not been surprising to hear the Conservatives floating a plan for greater privatisation.

While some of the talk that emerged from the Tories on the ferry front in April seemed to be around CMAL, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: “There are already private operators within the ferry industry in Scotland. We would look to get the best deal for people who rely on these as a lifeline service.

“It’s quite clear, after 14 years of failure from the SNP, people in island communities are not getting the best deal. We believe a more long-term approach is the way to deliver for these communities.”

The notion of privatisation delivering a more long-term approach is almost comical given the Tory track record on this front in a UK context. It is only not comical because it is a serious matter.

Mr Ross’s comments came as the Scottish Tories published a “Uniting Scotland” plan laying out what they thought should happen regarding roads, railway, and port infrastructure, ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections.

The section on ports and ferries declared: “We would scrap Caledonian Maritime Assets and introduce long-term contracts for ferry operations.

“The SNP have repeatedly failed our island communities who rely on ferries every day. We would review island connectivity and work directly with ferry companies to agree long-term contracts which allow them to invest in their fleet.”

It was not surprising to hear private operators mentioned because this is, after all, the Tory answer to much that is state-controlled. Even though, on several fronts, it has proved to be no kind of answer at all but quite the opposite.

What about the collapse of the formerly stock market-listed Railtrack into administration with debts of billions of pounds and the debacles with so many of the rail franchises?

And what about the privatisation of formerly Scottish-based nuclear power station operator British Energy? The UK Government had to step in amid financial difficulties, and the operations were ultimately acquired by Électricité de France.

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Often, privatisation is not the answer and dogma learned in the likes of a university debating chamber will not make it so. In this context, the success of Scottish Water has been highly encouraging to see, providing evidence that impressive performance can be achieved under state ownership (to supplement the raft of examples of privatisation not working).

Privatisation has over years and decades seen many individuals and companies reap very rich rewards for minimal, if any, risk, as very solid, often previously well-run assets have been sold off. And the process has often certainly not been to the long-term benefit of consumers or the taxpayer.

While there is no imminent threat or prospect of the Clyde and Hebridean ferry services being privatised, it must be hoped the political manoeuvrings and bumping of gums by politicians do not open up a future path in this direction.

A Holyrood inquiry concluded there was blame on all sides in the drama over the procurement and construction of the two new ferries from Ferguson Marine.

Much of the focus has been on the Port Glasgow shipbuilder, which was owned formerly by entrepreneur Jim McColl’s Clyde Blowers Capital vehicle and was taken into Scottish Government ownership amid the trouble over the ferry contracts. However, CMAL and the Scottish Government have also had major roles in the ferry contract drama.

It does seem, from an external perspective, that there is most definitely a case for looking at the current structure of ferry procurement and ownership, and at whether having CMAL in this key role in its current form is the optimal solution. However, the fleet should remain in public ownership, and responsibility for investment in it should stay under state control, whether in the current structure or with reform.

Crucially, it would be wrong to project the current problems, stemming from past lack of investment and procurement troubles, on to Caledonian MacBrayne.

The ferry operator, it is worth reiterating, has to operate with the fleet it is given under the current structure. Its lack of control in this regard is something that may well be worth looking at if changes in structure are being seriously examined.

Caledonian MacBrayne has proven over years and decades that it has the deep knowledge and expertise to run a complex network of ferries to fragile island communities. That is not to say it has always been perfect – and we must not underestimate the impact on island communities where service falls short – but it has generally done a very good job. If anyone doubts this, they should take a look at Scotland’s relatively smooth Clyde and Hebridean ferry operations in recent years and decades, and contrast this situation with the Tory rail privatisation shambles.

We should also not underestimate the importance of Caledonian MacBrayne to Scotland’s tourism industry.

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Anecdotally, observing international and domestic tourists over the years as they travel on one of the ferry operator’s black-and-white-painted vessels to whatever island it is headed for, there is often delight at the very particular style of Caledonian MacBrayne, from the tannoy announcements to the cafeteria area.

Yes, heavy investment is required and, while large sums of money have been earmarked by the Scottish Government for this, the delay over the Ferguson Marine vessels and a historic lack of expenditure mean that short-term troubles are likely to continue. But that is no argument for privatisation of the lifeline ferry services, now or in the future, and we must guard against any current carping forcing things down this route.

Caledonian MacBrayne has proven itself a most worthy operator of its lifeline routes over years and decades, and it must be given the vessels it needs so its highly experienced staff can provide the islands with the services they deserve.

The ferry operator is a national treasure and should be treated as such.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992