By Scott Wright

IT is tempting to imagine that Kevin Hobbs’ lifelong love of rugby has served him well in his role as chief executive of Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd, the public body that owns many of Scotland’s ferries and harbours.

There has certainly been no shortage of rough and tumble since he joined the agency in 2016 following a long career in the commercial shipping sector.

Mr Hobbs, who still plays rugby at the age of 56, has regularly had to tackle criticism amid the white-hot political fall-out from the ill-fated contract awarded to the Ferguson yard in Port Glasgow to build two ferries for the west coast network in 2015.

The agency also routinely finds itself on the receiving end of complaints from islanders unhappy over the age and reliability of the CalMac ferry fleet, and sceptical of its procurement decisions.

Mr Hobbs concedes it is hard to control the narrative when it comes to ferries, which perhaps is not surprising given the crucial lifeline role they

play in serving Scotland’s island communities. He defends the efforts made by Inverclyde-based CMAL to consult stakeholders on its projects and explain the rationale behind the decisions it takes, but admits it is impossible to meet every single demand when procuring ships.

“There are an array of requests, an array of questions which we then answer, but can we integrate all of them into the ultimate solution of a ship? The answer is often not,” he said.

At a time when state ferry operator CalMac is feeling the heat for service disruptions due to repairs, Mr Hobbs does acknowledge the age of the fleet has been an issue.

“The narrative has been that there is an ageing fleet, and I don’t think we would deny that,” Mr Hobbs said.

“The investment in the fleet hasn’t been what we as CMAL and professionals would desire.”

There looks set to be progress on this front, though. In February, Scottish ministers signed off on a five-year infrastructure investment programme. It gave CMAL a £586 million budget to upgrade Scotland’s ferries and harbours, more than doubling the £40m it was previously given each year to invest in the network.

Some much-needed projects will be brought on stream as a result, including a new ferry for Islay, two freight vessels for the Northern Isles, and three new passenger ships for the Gourock/

Dunoon/Kilcreggan triangular service. Seven ferries for the Clyde and Hebrides network will also be ordered under the small vessel replacement programme.

All in all, 19 of the 31 vessels CMAL owns that serve the west coast, along with two out of five it runs to the Northern Isles, will be replaced or will be on their way to being superseded in the next 10 years.

“There is the recognition that we have not received what we have needed, and we need a lot more,”

Mr Hobbs said. “That has now been agreed and approved, which we think is fabulous. Obviously, it is now up to CMAL to put the wheels in motion to make sure the money is spent and, more importantly, that both the vessel and port upgrades required will take shape, and we will completely transform the ferry network.”

He added: “We need to marry the two elements together and make sure we have got state-of-the-art ports that are fit for purpose and state-of-the-art ships that are fit for purpose.

“I will also be turning my attention now to looking [at] what 2026, 27 

Cont. from P25

 “I will also be turning my attention now to looking [at] what 2026, 27 through to 30,31 looks like, because to be honest we will need the same amount of money again.”

CMAL faces frequent calls to change its vessel-buying policy.

Prominent voices in island communities argue that the network needs smaller, more nimble ferries and more of them, and on Islay there have been demands for a new freight-only vessel, given the growing demands of the whisky industry. Some maritime experts say CMAL should introduce catamarans, such as those used by Pentland Ferries to serve Orkney.

Mr Hobbs said “there is no type of vessel that is off the table” but emphasised that a range of factors must be considered when procurement decisions are made.

Taking the example of Islay, for which CMAL is about to tender for at least one new ferry, Mr Hobbs said the agency has considered whether to buy one ferry at a cost of £50 million, or two smaller ones for £70m (both options yielding the same carrying capacity). The single, larger vessel will ultimately be favoured because of the lower lifetime cost when overheads such as crewing, fuel, repairs, and maintenance are taken into account.

“It is undeniable that if you go for smaller ships you will end up with a much more costly operation,” Mr Hobbs said. “There is a bit of an urban myth out there that we love building big ships. It is simply not true.”

Observers of Scottish ferry politics will certainly be keeping a close eye on how – and where – CMAL spends its enhanced budget following the Ferguson debacle. The ferry procurement process came in for scathing criticism from MSPs after the project ran so spectacularly over time and budget, and relations between CMAL and yard bosses at Ferguson broke down. A contract initially priced at £97 million is now expected to cost taxpayers at least double that amount, and it will April 2022 at the earliest before the first of the two vessels, the Glen Sannox, is complete.

A report by Holyrood’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, which came after Ferguson had fallen into administration and was subsequently nationalised, declared in December that the management of the process had been a “catastrophic failure”. MSPs called for a “root and branch overhaul” of the way ferries are procured.

Asked if CMAL had changed in response to the report, Mr Hobbs said the agency had begun to alter its processes before the publication, noting that “we will do things differently in future”. But he argues: “We are not ignoring it, but we also felt that, in some ways, we were being treated as a political football prior to an election. We have dissected that report, every single page of it. There are things which can be done, and should be done. And there are other things which were just way, way off the mark, to be honest with you.”

He argues there would not have been a parliamentary inquiry had Ferguson delivered the vessels. For its part, Ferguson, then owned by Jim McColl’s Clyde Blowers Capital, maintained that the yard faced repeated design changes requested by CMAL, and had sought compensation over rising costs.

Mr Hobbs said: “We did, naturally, by choosing Fergusons place a lot of faith in them, but the one thing that seemed to be almost ignored or airbrushed out was the issue that, fundamentally, it was the failure of the contractor to deliver what they promised,” he said. “That was the bit that really concerned me in terms of negativity.”

It might be wondered why Mr Hobbs, after a successful career in the commercial world, is willing to accept the slings and arrows that come with such a high-profile public role at CMAL.

He does not relish the politics the job attracts, and signals his frustration that so much of the narrative is about Ferguson when CMAL has a track record of delivering projects “on time and on budget”. But he remains excited about the difference CMAL can make to communities.

“When you rebuild a harbour, that facility will be there for the next 50 or 60 years,” Mr Hobbs said. “It can be completely transformative.”