A NOTEWORTHY milestone was reached earlier this month which may signal better days lie ahead for the Ferguson shipyard on the Clyde.

The yard launched the second of two vessels it has built for Isle of Mull-based Inverlussa Marine Services, which will charter the 26-metre workboat to Scottish Sea Farms for operations in the aquaculture industry on the west coast of Scotland.

The project may be comparatively small beer compared with the kind of vessels Ferguson has historically built. But, for those working towards a brighter future for the troubled yard, it was evidence progress is being made in the rehabilitation of a shipbuilder that has seen its reputation severely damaged by events in recent years, culminating in its nationalisation in 2019.

“On the back of a very challenging 12 months, this is a hugely positive event and is a clear sign of the progress at the shipyard,” was the verdict of Tim Hair, turnaround director at Ferguson Marine (Port Glasgow).

“Our contract with Inverlussa is also a great example of Scotland’s robust maritime sector, with the vessel designed, built and operating in Scotland.”

Under its previous owner, Jim McColl’s Clyde Blowers Capital, Ferguson became embroiled in a bitter and very public row with Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited, the public agency that owns the vessels and harbours of the west coast ferry network.

READ MORE: Nationalised Clyde shipyard declares new ‘milestone’ as workboat launched

The dispute centred on a £97 million contract awarded to Ferguson in October 2015 by CMAL to build two dual-fuel ferries to operate on the west coast. One of the vessels, the MV Glen Sannox, has been earmarked to serve the Isle of Arran.

However, amid an unedifying sequence of blame and counter-blame between Ferguson and CMAL over costs and design specifications, as well as questions over the role of the Scottish Government in the affair (it had provided £45m of loans to Ferguson), the project ran dramatically over time and budget.

Such was the breakdown in relations between CMAL and Ferguson that a subsequent probe by MSPs on Holyrood’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee concluded that the management of the process had been a “catastrophic failure”. Reporting in December, the committee called for a “root and branch overhaul” of the way new vessels are procured in Scotland.

Port Glasgow-based Ferguson was taken into public hands after falling into administration in the autumn of 2019. Work to complete the two ferries has since recommenced and indeed been stepped up, with Ferguson announcing in March the recruitment of 120 temporary workers to accelerate its progress on the project with the introduction of a weekend shift.

But the ill-fated project continues to dog the Scottish Government. Critics continue to question the rationale for nationalising the yard, a move made to protect hundreds of jobs in the area.

And there are fears the ultimate cost to the public purse of the ferries will rise to as much as £250m, such is the level of work that has still to take place.

READ MORE: Damning Holyrood report brands CalMac ferry fiasco a ‘catastrophic failure’

The Glen Sannox is now scheduled for completion between April and June 2022, while the second ship, still known as Hull 802, is slated for delivery between December 2022 and February 2023.

Given its recent troubled history, questions are naturally being asked about what the future holds for Ferguson.

What are the Scottish Government’s ultimate plans for the business? Does the yard have a viable future? Can it preserve highly skilled jobs in the Inverclyde area and play a role in delivering vessels that the Scottish ferry network will need in the decades to come?

Will there be buyers out there willing to take it out of ministers’ hands?

It is unlikely that we will learn the answers to these questions in the immediate term.

But insiders say we are likely to get a sense of what the long term holds for Ferguson, and the yard’s potential for winning new contracts, when CMAL places its next tranche of orders in the coming months.

In February, CMAL, in partnership with Transport Scotland and ferry operator CalMac, launched a programme to replace up to seven small vessels serving the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services network.

READ MORE: Ferry boss: Operators will be ‘nervous’ about ordering vessels from Ferguson

CMAL said the programme will lead to a multi-million-pound investment in the renewal of the small vessel “loch class” fleet, with the procurement process for a shipyard likely to begin in the next 12 months.

In addition, CMAL has confirmed plans to launch a vessel tender programme for a new ferry to serve the Hebridean island of Islay, to replace the ageing MV Hebridean Isles, and will be tendering for a new vessel to operate on the Gourock/ Dunoon/ Kilcreggan triangular service.

Conceivably, then, there is no shortage of work coming up for the Ferguson yard to go for.

However, given the travails at Ferguson in recent years, which culminated in its nationalisation, one would imagine it will have to up its game.

The procurement process for such work will continue to be guided by open tendering, which in effect means any shipyard can bid.

And of course safeguards are in place to ensure the public gets the best deal from any such procurement. Indeed one would hope these safeguards have been strengthened in light of the damning MSPs’ report.

However, it is only natural to wonder if CMAL will have the stomach to work with Ferguson again (even though it is likely that many of the key personnel at the yard will have exited following its nationalisation).

After seeing the cost to the public purse spiral on the project to build the two dual-fuel ferries, one would also imagine the ruling politicians at Holyrood will be desperate to avoid becoming bogged down in a similar fiasco.

After all, it is not as if the Scottish Government’s wider industrial strategy, in areas beyond Ferguson, has escaped criticism.

Opponents continue to question the wisdom of moves to prop up Prestwick Airport (which ministers nationalised in 2013) and BiFab, the wind farm fabrication firm, with loans running into tens of millions of pounds.

When all is said and done, it is surely in everyone’s interests that Ferguson is able to recover and, one day, stand on its own two feet again. Only then will the highly skilled jobs the shipyard provides in Inverclyde be protected, while helping preserve what is left of Scotland’s proud shipbuilding heritage.