AMID the continuing storm over the Caledonian MacBrayne Clyde and Hebridean ferry services, it has been heartening indeed to hear the Scottish Government rule out both splitting up the network and privatisation.

Some of the furore has understandably been fuelled by those affected directly and sometimes in major ways by various shortcomings – which we must recognise are in large part not of Caledonian MacBrayne’s own making. However, it is important not to overlook how much of the storm is somewhat faux, with opposition politicians at Holyrood seemingly keen to whip up a whirlwind at every opportunity when it comes to these Scottish Government-owned ferry services.

Of course, there are major issues to be tackled on the lifeline services operated by CalMac Ferries, of which Caledonian MacBrayne is a trading name.

You get the impression people would have had to be off-planet for several years to be unaware of the furore over the two hugely delayed vessels for Caledonian MacBrayne being built by Port Glasgow shipyard Ferguson Marine, which is now owned by the Scottish Government after falling into administration in 2018.

This contract is being handled by Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), another Scottish Government-controlled entity that owns the ferries, ports, harbours and other infrastructure used by Caledonian MacBrayne. It has seemed there have been issues on both the Ferguson and CMAL sides as the cost of these long-overdue ferries, still a way from delivery, has rocketed and time has rolled on.

There have also been significant issues in recent times over the reliability of the existing fleet of Caledonian MacBrayne, although we must also bear in mind the ferry operator cannot control the weather off Scotland’s west coast. While breakdowns and engineering issues seem to have come to a head all at once, this appears to be the result of under-investment over many years, including but certainly not limited to the period the SNP has been in power.

There are, of course, lessons to be learned amid the current storm.

However, the lesson is most certainly not what the likes of Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, based on his past comments, would seem to like it to be: that somehow privatisation is the answer.

Unless anyone wants to turn a drama into far more protracted woe, the privatisation voyage should be avoided at all costs.

Of course, the privatisation danger is not new. The privatisation drum was being banged in the pre-devolution days of the early 1990s, when the Tories were also in power at Westminster.

Thankfully, this calamity was avoided.

One quick look at the rail and energy sectors over recent decades would tell you that privatisation does not seem to be anything like a clever answer when it comes to vital services with significant complexity and major infrastructure which require reliable, long-term investment.

Those who would carp about the Clyde and Hebridean ferry services being in state ownership will, of course, try to make the most of the current difficulties being encountered by Caledonian MacBrayne.

However, these surely pale into insignificance relative to the utter shambles we have seen in the energy and rail sectors in the wake of the Tory privatisation spree of the 1980s and 1990s.

This has included, but has not been limited to, the collapses of former rail infrastructure owner Railtrack and of nuclear power company British Energy, the UK’s utter failure to ensure security of energy supply with households now paying the price for this, and the breakdown of various passenger rail franchise agreements.

The only thing that seems to have happened with any reliability is that executives in businesses in these privatised sectors have made big money, regardless of the mess around them and at times when they have been slashing jobs and taking damaging short-term views.

It might be hoped that even the Tories could observe the shambles of epic proportions which has ensued in these sectors, and the grim knock-on implications for households and businesses, and question their seemingly default position of loving privatisation.

Sadly, such awareness appears to remain elusive for them.

Mr Ross said last year of the Caledonian MacBrayne services: “There are already private operators within the ferry industry in Scotland. We would look to get the best deal for people who rely on these as a lifeline service.”

Surely history has taught us that, if you want lifeline services, you should absolutely not leave them in the hands of private companies.

Maybe those who do not accept this historical lesson should reflect on what the banks have done in fragile remote and rural places. Sweeping closures have included the axing of the last branches in such communities.

There seems to have been growing talk in recent times about “unbundling” or breaking up the Caledonian MacBrayne services, with the possibility floated of private sector or community players replacing the state-owned operator on some routes.

To put it in the mildest of terms, this does not seem like a good idea at all.

Having the Caledonian MacBrayne network as it is now brings many advantages, including economies of scale, flexibility to divert vessels between routes when problems arise, a deeply experienced employee base, and, crucially, state backing for lifeline services.

Of course, there is room for debate over structure and particularly about whether CMAL needs to be there to procure ferries and lease them to CalMac Ferries and look after the infrastructure. Should the two operations be combined? Or should CMAL be restructured?

Transport Scotland, an executive agency of the Scottish Government, is currently undertaking its Project Neptune review into the provision of ferry services.

The agency noted: “Any structure proposed for delivering ferry services on behalf of the Scottish Ministers should enhance passenger experience, support local communities and be accountable, transparent and capable of achieving best value.”

This should go without saying.

And potential new structures can be weighed against the efficacy of those in place at the moment.

That said, it was a massive relief to hear Transport Scotland declare last week: “Scottish Ministers have been clear on multiple occasions, including the Transport Minister’s recent update to Parliament on Project Neptune, that we will not consider splitting up the network or privatisation of any of the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services routes.”

Major improvements can of course be made but the crucial point here is that state ownership is needed for successful delivery of these ferry services over the long term, given the need for investment and deep experience of operating what are often challenging routes. In this context, it is vital to remember the hugely damaging short-termism we have seen in a raft of privatisation situations.

Public ownership allows sensible decisions to be taken for the long term, and some albeit significant short-term problems with the Clyde and Hebridean ferry services do not change this simple and important truth.

The noisy calls for break-up or privatisation, many of them politically motivated, must be ignored at all costs if Caledonian MacBrayne is to prosper over the long term.

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