SCOTLAND'S biggest statutory regional transport agency has called into question the "closed group" decision making which has led to the country's ferry building fiasco and has demanded an independent review.

It has emerged that the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (HITRANS), which was created by Transport Scotland and is part-funded by the Scottish Government, has demanded "better due diligence" in procuring ferries and better engagement with the communities who rely on them.

They have produced a critical analysis of the nation's procurement process, involving a "closed group" of Scottish Government-controlled bodies - Transport Scotland as funders, the procuring and ferry owning company, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), and ferry operators Calmac.

The Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow which was awarded a £97 million contract to build two ferries, designated 801 and 802, collapsed into administration last August and was taken into state ownership by the Scottish Government.

The two lifeline ferries which were due to be in service in early 2018 are now up to nearly five years behind schedule.

And HITRANS, which covers 50% of the country's total landmass, warned the failure of delivery an adequate ferry system is resulting in hundreds of job opportunities lost with the number growing every year.

It said the degree of ferry capacity constraint would suggest at least as many jobs "have been denied" by the inability to grow tourism on Scottish islands as has been saved by keeping Ferguson Marine open.

Former managers of the shipyard accused the Scottish Government of having no serious intention of leaving it in private ownership while being warned nationalisation would be subject to EU state aid laws.

READ MORE: Revealed: Ministers' secret path to the controversial state takeover of Ferguson Marine

They accused ministers of forcing it into insolvency by rejecting a plan that would avoid any state aid claim, save the taxpayer at least £120m and prevent the costs of building two key lifeline ferries which have doubled to over £230m.

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The Herald on Sunday has previously revealed the government has faced questions about failing to notify the EU about nationalising Ferguson after being found to have given £50m of "illegal state aid" to two Scottish airports.

The Herald on Sunday revealed that ministers ensured there was a "right to buy" of the shipyard when it provided a £30m loan two years ago knowing it was creating a path to controversial state ownership.

HITRANS, which comprises members of local authorities said has produced a critical analysis for MSPs of the ferry debacle saying there is a "strong case case to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy that has been pursued in ferry policy in Scotland".

It added: "We believe we should look at international good practice.

"We believe that any understanding of what has gone wrong must include the process that informed the decision to place the order for these vessels in the first place and, we would contend, the absence of any engagement with the communities themselves or other key stakeholders within the Highlands and Islands."

It has called for an independent review of ferry service specification and delivery led by a recognised expert in the field who can draw on experience and examples of international best practice.

It would be similar to was was adopted adopted by the UK Government into the effectiveness of the trains network in the Williams Rail Review and should "have at its heart a commitment to getting it right for Scotland’s islands".

HITRANS, whose role is to deliver better transport, both locally and nationally, and to act as a catalyst for regeneration of the region’s economy said: "We believe that this new approach should be fast tracked into a vessel replacement plan."

It urged MSPs to "investigate the effectiveness of decision making in respect of vessel deployment, replacement and infrastructure planning and whether a closed group of CMAL, Calmac Ferries Limited and Transport Scotland making decisions and policies in this respect is an appropriate way to secure lifeline services for island communities".

READ MORE: Shipyard bosses accused of 'designing as they went along'

It added: "HITRANS contend this is not an acceptable approach and we need to increase level of input communities have to the process and move decision making from the central belt to the Highlands and Islands.

HeraldScotland:

"Until now, we believe that there has been an absence of transparency with the islands which, in our view, are being badly let down by the failure to deliver the capacity that was promised by 2019 and the failure to inform these most important stakeholders applies to all parties to this contract."

It added: "We assert that better due diligence is needed in the tendering process to ensure that the successful tender goes to a shipyard capable of delivering it."

It said the design and build fixed price approached looked good from a cost control perspective but has not worked.

It said a specified design should be in place for tendering and this should become the easily modified standard.

Competition watchdogs have already warned about the "potential risks" of state control over the way ferries are operated, run and paid for in Scotland.

It says there are dangers of Ferguson Marine being awarded work without a competitive tender process, saying "it is unlikely to make it a commercially sustainable business" and "it may also have a negative impact on the wider industry".

The trade regulator said the future procurement process should be "neutral" and ensure it "doesn't favour a state provider".

HITRANS said it could not see a Brexit that does not retain rules araound state aid and competitive tendering.

It said there were dangers in exposing a shipyard to a reliance on state funding "and we believe that past experience has been that maintaining a consistent pipeline of new ferry orders has been beyond successive governments therefore a significant step change in support to island areas would be needed, in our view, for this to happen".

Ministers confirmed last month that the first of the ferries the MV Glen Sannox is now destined for the Arran to Ardrossan route between April 2022, to June, 2022.

Pre-lockdown the already delayed timetable had the Glen Sannox in action by October to December, 2021. A second vessel, known only as Hull 802, which was supposed to be delivered to state-owned CalMac in the first half of 2018 for use on the Uig-Lochmaddy-Tarbert triangle - will not now be in service until between December, 2022 and February, 2023.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Transport Scotland is currently working with CMAL, CalMac and many others to develop potential investment programmes for major vessels and small vessels with the aim of increased standardisation, taking account of the many varied routes available and circumstances.

"We look forward to working with all interested parties to continue to deliver improvements, building on the substantial investment in routes, services, vessels, harbours and fares which have been made in these services in recent years and which have led to significant enhancements in connectivity, capacity, affordability and passenger numbers.

“The successor to the previous Ferries Plan (2013-2022) is being developed following the publication of the National Transport Strategy and the National Islands Plan. We have invested over £2 billion in the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services, Northern Isles Ferry Services and ferry infrastructure since 2007. This includes new routes, vessels, upgraded harbour infrastructure, as well as the roll out of significantly reduced fares through the Road Equivalent Tariff scheme. This had previously helped drive passenger growth to an increase of 17% since 2012.

“Transport Scotland is already in the process of developing a revised stakeholder strategy, and we do value the importance of feedback and providing a clear explanation of decisions taken.

"A lot of information has been provided by island communities via the recent consultation exercises for the NTS and the NIP, for example. Ministers are grateful to communities for their contribution in the ongoing debate around the future of ferry services, as we rely on their input during policy development and planning.”