It comes around roughly every five years.

Confusion abounds  and allegations start flying over the tendering of CalMac’s ferry routes, contracts, subsidies, state aid, and the European Commission.

It’s all  because CalMac receives around £70m a year in public subsidy. The European Commission doesn’t much like subsidy, or state aid as it calls it, unless it is justified by social need and everybody has a chance to get their hands on it.

Loading article content

So when CalMac’s contract is coming towards its final years, the routes should be put out to tender so private operators can bid for them.

CalMac’s current contract ends in October next year, so the tendering process should have been beginning. But  last  month, transport minister Keith Brown announced that the Scottish Government was extending CalMac’s contract by three years. So tendering would be delayed till 2014, with the new contract not starting till 2016.

That was welcomed by many in the islands, concerned about  what it would mean for their ferry network, back-up vessels etc if  private operators cherry-picked the busier routes.

But nobody knew that an extension was possible. Indeed, legal and industry sources have been insisting,  in the last week or so, that it will mean CalMac’s subsidies after 2013 will be illegal under European law.

That could trigger dire financial retribution to be visited by Brussels upon CalMac and ministers, they predict.

The Scottish Government categorically denies this and insists ministers have been chatting with  the European Commission and everything is OK.

So who is right? Should  be easy enough to find out,  simply ask the European Commission.

This  The  Herald did three weeks ago, eventually eliciting a response from the EC’s Internal Market and Services department,  which  apparently supported the Scottish Government’s interpretation: “The EU public procurement rules do not provide for a maximum duration of a public services contract. Furthermore, the extension of the contract could be foreseen in the contract terms." It  concluded “from our point of view no authorisation for the prolongation is necessary”.


Except then, last week,  the EC’s Department of Growth & Jobs – Competition, gave a quote to another newspaper which was a bit different: “The Commission has not received a formal notification from the UK authorities regarding a possible interim prolongation of the current public service contract with CalMac and has not authorised any possible state funding to be granted on this basis to CalMac."

Perhaps the Scottish Government’s take on things was flawed after all?

So the Herald went to the EC’s Department of Growth & Jobs – Competition for further clarification, and got yet another "definitive" line: “It should be noted that the Member State is not always obliged to notify a public service compensation.

"This would be the case, for example, if the compensation complies with the conditions contained in the Altmark Court judgement and would thus not constitute state aid. It is the member wtate's responsibility to assess the existence of state aid and to decide whether a notification to the Commission is necessary.

"It should be noted that even when the member state considers that a public service compensation does not constitute aid, it can still notify it to the Commission for reasons of legal certainty.”

That’s cleared that all up then....hasn’t it?

Loch Carron lament

We should all be wishing URS Infrastructure and Environment UK Ltd good fortune. They may be part of one of the biggest environmental/engineering consulting outfits on the planet, but their latest contract will be a real test.

They were charged this week by Highland Council to come up with the best solution to the rock falls  on the A890 which runs on the south side of Loch Carron.

Since it was built 40 years ago, this stretch has been subject to repeated falls from the rock face left when the road was opened.

The resulting road closures have seriously disrupted life in local communities, leaving them feeling isolated and fearful for the future.

In 1989, there was a landslide just minutes after two school buses passed carrying pupils from Lochcarron and Applecross to Plockton High School. Concerned parents condemned the road as the worst in Britain.

Three days before Christmas last year it was closed again and didn’t fully reopen until April 23.

That meant a 130-mile detour by Beauly and Loch Ness just to get from one side of the sea loch to the other until a ferry service, withdrawn more than 40 years ago,  began running again.

Special trains also had to be commissioned to take secondary pupils to Plockton, and at one point traffic convoys were being taken along the railway which had been adapted to carry vehicles.

The overall cost of dealing with this most recent rock fall, including the ferries and additional train services, was around £2.8m.

It boosted the income of the community company which owns the Glenachulish turntable ferry which used to take cars across the mouth of Loch Leven until the Ballachulish Bridge opened way back in 1975. Now it runs between Kylerhea on Skye and Glenelg during the tourist season.

Since its rescue mission at Loch Carron,  options have been identified and their eye-watering costs estimated by Highland Council.

These are: stabilising the existing rock face (£69m);  rock cut into hillside and widen the road to six metres of carriageway (£109m);  extend the existing avalanche shelter (£59m for a single extension and £104m for a double extension); dig a 1.25 mile tunnel (£94m); rock fill out into Loch Carron to provide sufficient space for the road and railway (£115 m);  restrict works to reactive maintenance (£10m over 20 years); build a new road through Attadale Estate via Glen Udalain to bypass problem area (£23m); and build a  bridge crossing near the Strome narrows and approach road (£60m).

But as long ago as 1994, the former Highland Regional Council produced a feasibility study of bypassing the A890 at the point hit by landslides.

The bridge and the new road were amongst the options then. So was a causeway along the seaward side of the rail line, leaving the existing road as a protective corridor for the railway.  The road was the cheapest, £10m, and the preferred option. But it did not proceed because of lack of funding. It was also opposed by the local landowner.

Now it is over to URS, who are scheduled to report their  initial findings next spring. Following this, the more detailed options appraisal report will then be prepared by spring 2014, after which  a preferred option can be selected.

Till then fingers will be crossed round Loch Carron. But perhaps URS should be going back to the future with a ferry returning  permanently to the Strome Narrows running 24 hours a day. You wouldn’t think there would be any problem getting a subsidy for it. (see above)

A Graceful gift

The memory of Gavin Maxwell has  been rekindled recently with the ownership of Eilean Bàn,  the six acre island below the Skye Bridge, having been transferred from Transport Scotland to Forestry Commission Scotland, ensuring it stays in public ownership.

It hosts the Gavin Maxwell Museum , having been his home for a while. The film Ring of Bright Water was based on Maxwell’s book and starred Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna in a story about a Londoner and his pet otter in the Highlands.

So it is many congratulations to the Scotland-based conservationist who is to receive a special award from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) at the House of Lords in Tuesday, recognising her efforts to protect otters in Scotland and around the globe.

Grace Yoxon (56) grew up in Croydon, Greater London, but has been studying otters in Scotland since 1980 after moving to Skye to run wildlife and geology trips. Based in Broadford, Grace set up the International Otter Survival Fund in 1993 with her husband Paul after being inspired by watching otters in their natural habitat.

The fund is now considered one of the world’s leading otter charities, working with local communities around the world to educate, inform and encourage protection of the 13 species of otter.

The couple also spend much of their time providing hands-on care for orphaned and injured otters in a hospital beside their home and have successfully released more than 100 rehabilitated otters back into the wild.

They work as consultants to the main ecological and governmental organisations in Scotland and England, carrying out important environmental surveys in relation to otters. They also campaign against the otter fur trade and against animal snares in Scotland, which can maim and kill otters.

Robbie Marsland, UK Director of IFAW, said: “Grace’s many years of dedicated work to protect otters both in Scotland and around the world make her a very worthy winner of this year’s IFAW Conservation Award. We are delighted to recognise her conservation efforts and believe she is a great example to others.”

Grace, who was nominated by her daughter for her award, said: “I was totally amazed when I found out I had won. I began the work because after the enjoyment of watching otters in the wild I really wanted to give something back. Otters are so fascinating because they all have very different characters. They face lots of threats but I often think they are a forgotten species; they don’t attract the same level of interest that many animals do.

“When we have nursed an orphaned or injured otter back to health people often say you must be sad to let it go, but the opposite is true, seeing them back in the wild where they should be is so satisfying.”