The Western Isles contribute much to Scotland by way of culture, heritage, language and landscape and our key sectors of tourism, aquaculture, food, drink and agriculture bring benefits beyond our shores.

We are optimistic about the future, but island life can be challenging. Ferry issues, whether it be due to weather or an ageing fleet, make island life challenging.

This is compounded by the inexplicable choices Central Belt-based bodies, tasked with responsibility for lifeline ferries, make on our behalf. 

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There have been decades of under-investment in ferries by successive Governments. Choices have been made to prioritise investment elsewhere above the needs of our islands. Instead of replacing a single ferry each year – an investment only enough to allow the fleet age to stand still – islanders have been asked to make do and mend while billions are spent on trams, bridges and motorways. 

The Government deserves credit for its decision to introduce Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) which makes travel to our islands more affordable. This has certainly helped our economy to grow. Despite ferry travel being more affordable which has increased demand, there has been almost no increase in capacity and ferries are increasingly constrained.

In addition, while Government has stepped up and invested, the wrong choices have been taken by Calmac, CMAL and Transport Scotland which has exacerbated the situation.

Had islanders been consulted, different choices would have been taken and we would have the services we require for less expenditure. 

£240 million has been invested on Western Isles ferry services.

This sum is made up of the cost to deliver the MV Loch Seaforth into service and a new ferry and infrastructure to service the routes between Skye and Uist and Harris. The latter decision is compounded by the current shipyard debacle which is likely to see the ferry delivered four years late at significant additional cost. 

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When options for the Stornoway route were consulted on, island voices were united that the solution should be a two-ferry service. A new ferry alongside the MV Isle of Lewis, operating from existing infrastructure at a cost of £30 millionMillion. Independent consultancy advice supported this proposal.

However, CMAL, Calmac and Transport Scotland favoured a single large ferry (financed by Lloyds Bank) and harbour infrastructure investment at a cost of £31m. The total bill is now known to be £90m. The ferry cannot operate on another route and the displaced MV Isle of Lewis can only serve Barra and is not particularly appropriate for that route either as her design means she is limited in terms of freight capacity.

With no local engagement, CMAL, Calmac and Transport Scotland decided to order one new ferry to replace the MV Hebrides on services to Harris and Uist. No island views were sought and no independent advice was taken. Presumably, the “experts” feared we might again unite around the obvious solution of a dedicated ferry on each route.

So, no improved network resilience and no “radical” change such as the ability to make a day trip. Instead, more of the same shared ferry arrangement which was introduced in 1964.

The final bill for 802 is estimated at £100m when she enters service four years late plus £50m to enable her to berth at each harbour. It is difficult to understand the logic which informed this choice, as opposed to investing £30m in a ferry which could operate alongside Hebrides. 

Had islanders been listened to, the funding already committed by Government would have delivered fit for purpose ferry services on our routes to Stornoway, Tarbert, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale and Castlebay. The spend could have delivered new major ferries on each of these routes with enough left over for the new ferries needed to serve other islands including Mull and Islay.

Conventional vessels that we would have supported being built in Scotland!

There could be additional operating costs from increasing the size of the fleet at CalMac’s disposal but these can be managed by good vessel design and efficient crewing. Pentland Ferries’ new MV Alfred can carry the same as the MV Hebrides, but has a crew about half the size. Crews should also live in the area they serve and not on hotels provided on board the ferry.

It is not just the capital investment decisions that have let us down. Recent years have seen increasingly poor responses by Calmac to network problems.

Whether it be the lack of any service whatsoever to Barra recently over a period of five days, or the response to the technical failure that beset MV Clansman’s return from dry dock in 2018 when Calmac moved the MV Hebrides away from her route, only to then move her back again when the smaller replacement could not move the Easter weekend traffic waiting at the pier.

Islanders looked on in dismay as mainland-based senior management made bad decisions. 

It is time to walk the talk on community empowerment and let islanders make the decisions on our lifeline services instead of the manner in which investment and operational decisions are being made by centralised bodies.

The island-based staff and area management are excellent. They should be the blueprint for the future and senior decisions by Calmac, CMAL and Transport Scotland must be taken by island-based staff to ensure that people with a true understanding of the impact of their decisions are in place, as proper custodians for future generations. 

Uisdean Robertson is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee at Western Isles Council.