AFTER the fall-out from Ferguson ferry dispute plunged to new depths last week, calls for a full public inquiry into the costly fiasco have begun to gather momentum. And with justification too.

With still no immediate prospect of the two ferries being delivered, claim and counter-claim over what went wrong continuing, and the bill to taxpayers now likely to be in excess of £200 million (following an initial contract award of £97m to the now-nationalised Ferguson shipyard) there is a clear public interest in getting to the bottom of this unedifying mess.

The latest eye-watering details to emerge from the doomed Ferguson contract came during evidence sessions held by the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee at Holyrood.

Events at the Port Glasgow yard, which Jim McColl’s Clyde Blowers Capital had saved from administration in 2014, have naturally dominated the investigation so far. And the appearance by Mr McColl before MSPs last week was the most explosive yet, with the industrialist stating that the First Minister had publicly announced the decision to hand Ferguson the contract even though the yard and CMAL (Caledonian Maritime Assets) were still at that point haggling over the final price.

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The claims made for sensational headlines in what was arguably the most testing week Nicola Sturgeon has had to endure as First Minister, given the subsequent downfall of the former Finance Secretary Derek Mackay.

It is crucially important, given the sums of public money at stake, that MSPs are able to establish a clear picture of what really went on at Ferguson. What is even more vital is that their investigations into the construction and procurement of ferries in Scotland results in meaningful change for the many thousands of people who depend on the lifeline service along the west coast.

In-depth reports on the ferry crisis in The Herald have laid bare the deep dissatisfaction felt by businesses and communities on the west coast of Scotland. Amid the unfolding crisis at Ferguson, which has delayed the delivery of a much-needed new ferry for the busy Ardrossan to Brodick route, islanders and naval experts have become exasperated with the approach taken to ferry and harbour procurement.

The recent addition to the CalMac fleet of the MV Loch Seaforth, which serves the Ullapool to Stornoway route is offered as a case in point. In addition to the £42m cost of the ferry, critics say £31m of harbour improvements were needed on either side of the route just to accommodate the new vessel.

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Another frequently cited example is the £31m investment in a new harbour at Brodick on Arran. Islanders say its new position – at right angles to the original – has caused a spike in ferry cancellations because it has made the harbour more susceptible to easterly winds.

The Arran Ferry Action Group, in its submission to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, said the frequent breakdowns of the ageing vessels which work the Ardrossan to Brodick crossing have resulted in an “unprecedented number of cancelled and delayed sailings”. The group warned the unreliability of the ferry service means tourism on Arran is at risk of “suffering death by a thousand cuts”.

But Arran is not the only island which is suffering because of the strain on ferry services. The expansion of the whisky and tourism industries on Islay has left distillers and hauliers struggling to secure sufficient ferry space to transport their spirit to the mainland.

Like Arran, Islay relies on ageing vessels and is suffering from the knock-on effects of the Ferguson crisis. The Islay crossing has been next in line for a new ferry under Transport Scotland’s most recent Vessel Replacement and Deployment Plan which was announced in 2016. That report recognised the pressure on the route and the age of the two vessels which serve it – the MV Finlaggan and the MV Hebridean Isles.

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Criticism of the size of ferries favoured by CMAL has also emerged during the current Holyrood inquiry.

In a written submission, naval consultant Roy Pedersen argues that CMAL should be buying smaller and more economically run vessels, in contrast to the large and complex “mono-hulls” which currently make up the fleet.

Mr Pedersen said design specification is a “fundamental issue” which must be addressed, while also calling into question the level of crewing currently utilised on the ferries.

“Compared with industry norms, major vessels of the existing and ageing CMAL/ Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) fleet have an unusually high and costly ratio of passenger to car capacity,” Mr Pedersen writes.

“In most cases, this costly over-provision of higher passenger capacity is never utilised. As crewing is broadly proportional to passenger capacity, large crew complements with on-board accommodation further increases capital costs.” Mr Pedersen adds: “With few exceptions, analysis of the carrying figures in August 2019 (the peak month) on CalMac’s major routes shows that passenger capacity of half that currently provided would more than meet demand. Thus, CalMac vessels incur much heavier capital and operating costs than necessary, which largely accounts for the excessive subventions from the public purse of supporting CalMac’s services for a relatively indifferent service.”

Mr Pedersen’s views are shared by Alf Baird, a professor of maritime business, who last summer said that key decisions about shipping were being made by civil servants without the necessary qualifications.

“The basic thought seems to be, let’s get bigger and bigger ships,” he said. “The problem with that is that these ships are becoming so big they are difficult to fit into harbours, especially in bad weather.”

CMAL takes a different view. Defending its position, it said the “most effective strategy going forward is to procure vessels that are broadly similar in size to the vessels they will replace, and will therefore fit existing harbour infrastructure.” CMAL said the investments it has been making in its harbour network are necessary, and defended the skills of the engineers and consultants on its books.

Clearly, there is much dispute over the way ahead for the ferry network. But the spotlight shone by the Ferguson debacle has brought with it an opportunity for a comprehensive look at the whole picture, from vessel procurement to harbour investment. Without meaningful change, and a willingness to review current practice, the dissatisfaction felt by people and businesses along the west coast is only going to fester.