Scottish Transport Minister Questioned Over Ferries

Orkney’s dire position with its ferries was brought up in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 9th of September.

The internal fleet is an ageing one – possibly soon to be given protected status as historical artefacts. The Nordic Sea purchased by the council to ply the Westray/Papa Westray route is not plying anywhere except wee outings round the coast.

So what is happening ?

Recently the Scottish Government Transport Minister Graeme Dey was in Orkney and between having a photo op with electric car owners and not visiting air traffic controllers who are in a dispute with HIAL over Remote Towers, he did hear about the plans by OIC to have low emission ferries.

Graeme Dey told MSPs:

“I met Orkney Islands Council in Kirkwall last month and I heard about its plans to introduce low-emissions ferries. I welcomed those plans but I made it clear that….the responsibility for the interisland ferry services, including the procurement of replacement vessels, sits with the local authority.

“We do, however, recognise the pressures that that brings, which is why the Scottish Government’s 2021-22 budget includes £19.2 million for local authorities operating ferries, which is an increase of £7.7 million on last year.”

Liam McArthur , Orkney Constituency LibDem MSP pointed out that “Orkney’s internal ferry service relies on ageing vessels. They are costly to run, damaging to the environment and no longer fit for purpose. The service already falls below the minimum standards set in the Government’s ferries plan.

“What people in Orkney want to know is how and when new ferries will be delivered?”

In his parliamentary answer Graeme Dey said:

“We have a record of assisting our island authorities, where possible, with issues such as this. The member will remember that in 2019 we helped to fund the replacement of the MV Golden Mariana.”

Which is true and with that money the Scottish Government handed over, OIC purchased The Nordic Sea.

At its arrival in Kirkwall back in April 2020 Councillor Andrew Drever, from the Board of Orkney Ferries, said:

“I would like to recognise the efforts of the team here in Orkney for getting us to this stage, the help we have had from the Norwegian owners and the Danish shipbrokers and, of course, the patience of the people of Papa Westray.

“I would also like to recognise the support we’ve received from the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland, who have agreed to fund 50% of the project costs.

“These, once all works and costs are complete, will be in the region of £1.5 million and without their funding support, this first small step in the replacement of our ferry fleet would not have been possible.”

As we all know in Orkney, The Nordic Sea, is not providing this ferry service.

Graeme Dey in his reponse in the Scottish Parliament went on to say:

“The responsibility for the replacement of vessels lies with Orkney Islands Council. I recognise, however, that, like us, the council faces budgetary pressures and that we have a shared decarbonisation agenda. I am therefore willing to explore what we could do to assist the council in the form of removal or, at least, substantial reduction of the design fee costs by virtue of creating and making available to the council a small number of standardised designs. We have had initial conversations with Orkney Islands Council in that regard.”

After the exchange Liam McArthur commented:

“The First Minister has set out ambitious plans for decarbonising our islands, including in the area of transport.

“This is both welcome and necessary, but cannot be achieved without investment, amongst other things, in new, low emission ferries.

“The Minister’s identification of potential costs that could be met by the government is helpful, but is likely to fall short of what is required. It does at least form the basis of a way forward.

“Time is of the essence, however, both for the island communities who rely on these lifeline services and the environment that cannot afford Ministers to keep kicking the can down the road.”

Varagen in Kirkwall credit: Mike Robertson

SNP MSP Emma Roddick, Highlands and Islands also asked about ferry services.

She wanted to know how much investment Scottish ferry services have seen since 2007, and how additional funds will be allocated to the region.

Graeme Dey said that:

“The Scottish Government has invested in excess of £2.2 billion in the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services, northern isles ferry services and ferry infrastructure since 2007. We have also delivered a number of new routes. However, I do not hide from the fact that we need to do more. That is why we have a £580 million funding stream to deliver new ferries and harbour infrastructure, which we are in the process of delivering.”

Commenting afterwards, Emma Roddick said:

“I am pleased to see that further investment is planned for our ferry services. I know from personal experience and from my constituents that low capacity is a huge issue for Orkney, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We must ensure that we have suitable infrastructure in place, both for our Island residents and visitors alike. It is vital that we make our Island communities a priority in order to boost quality of life and tackle depopulation.”

The Transport Minister advised that he is happy to liaise with Orkney to explore lower-cost options for new ferries going forward.

The ferry issue is not just our problem here in Orkney. Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) has made travel to Scotland’s west coast islands more affordable for many and so there is a significant problem there with islanders not being able to get their vehicles onto ferries because of visitor bookings. The problem is made worse by the ageing fleet and when Covid self isolation results in staff shortages.

Graeme Dey said that for the west coast “passenger capacity has increased with the removal of physical distancing on 9 August.

“We are also actively exploring opportunities for chartering additional vessels and have secured the MV Arrow to enhance the existing fleet that provides lifeline ferry services.

“We are also continuing with the procurement of a new vessel for the Islay service, as well as seven new ships under the small vessel replacement programme, and we are progressing work on new vessels for the Gourock to Dunoon and Kilcreggan services.”

In response to the Transport Minister in the Scottish Parliament, Rhoda Grant, Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands said:

“Our island communities in the west have suffered for a number of years from a lack of capacity and a lack of reliable ferries. This year, the additional challenge of Covid-19 has taken the service to breaking point, with many people unable to travel. That is unacceptable—it damages the economy and blights lives.

“The Scottish Government has, so far, failed to increase capacity. “

And she asked:

“What steps is it taking to procure additional capacity over and above that provided by the MV Arrow in the short term to alleviate those communities’ issues?”

The Transport Minister replied:

“Work on securing additional second-hand tonnage to alleviate some of the pressures that we face on the network is constant. I can share with the chamber the fact that, as we speak, senior representatives of Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd and CalMac Ferries are out of the country, actively assessing a vessel, with a view to purchase.

“If we get that over the line, it will have a positive cascade effect across the network and, in addition, will create the potential for us to head into the next summer season with a back-up vessel standing by to cover any issues that arise. “

Rhoda Grant has cautiously welcomed the announcement. Afterwards she commented:

“Mr Dey advised is that ‘if’ negotiations for this new vessel are completed it will alleviate some pressure in the network. ‘If’ is a big word in the SNP vocabulary, and while I desperately hope that this will work out for the sake of the communities, I am painfully aware of the awkward specification issues facing CalMac as a result of CMAL’s scattergun approach to vessel and pier commissioning. I will celebrate when the vessel is docked in Scotland and not before.

“Even if this vessel is secured and the SNP once again manages to patch over its atrocious lack of strategic management, we have to be cautious and keep up the pressure so that we do reach another crisis stage as we have done this year. Passenger numbers on the ferry network are hitting record highs year and year, and this is to be welcomed – our communities should be promoted and enjoyed – but the infrastructure and the investment needs to be there to support it.

“The ferry fleet programme is years behind where it should be to provide a reliable and robust service. One or two boats are not going to address the crux of the matter – we need a properly thought out and developed strategy and purchase programme.”

On the 26th of March 2021 Orkney Islands Council issued a notice on the Public Contracts Scotland site for: Provision of Westray to Papa Westray Passenger Ferry Service.

This was the route The Nordic Sea was purchased for, with financial support from the Scottish Government, and which it is not doing. The Nordic Sea Update

Orkney Islands Council has also introduced a revised ferry fare structure for passengers and cars across the Orkney Ferries service from 14 June this year.

This reduced the base rate adult and vehicle fares by 38% and gave a further 25% concessionary discount for elderly and disabled passengers (As the elderly and disabled passengers previously received a 50 per cent discount on the original base rate fare, the real terms discount now is 7 per cent) and a 50% discount for junior and full-time students.

The change in fare structure came following additional Scottish Government funding of around £725,000 during 2021/22 which will be subject to review each year.

The funding was for passenger and vehicle fares only so there has been no change to the commercial rates applied by Orkney Ferries Ltd and they will require to be considered separately.

Islanders are now  being asked to feedback into a survey on the revised Orkney Ferries fare structure which has been in place for nearly three months: survey link

The closing date for responses is Thursday 30th September 2021.

sunset at Houton Ferry terminal Image Bell

Fiona Grahame

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