A SCOTTISH Government formed group set up to advise on key issues affecting lifeline island services in Scotland has not met for two years despite the nation's ongoing ferry fiasco, it has emerged.

Ministers have come under fire as it has been revealed that the Ferry Industry Advisory Group set up to inform the Scottish Government and its Transport Scotland agency over the way forward for ferry services has not met since October, 2019.

That's despite the fact that the state-owned ferry operator CalMac is having to handle an ageing ferry fleet with new lifeline vessels MV Glen Sannox and Hull 802 still languishing in the now state-owned Ferguson Marine shipyard, with costs of their construction more than doubling from the original £97m contract and delivery over four years late.

The Herald:

It emerged after a summer of issues with breakdowns involving Scotland's ageing ferry fleet.

While industry experts agree the working life of the ferries is 25 years, 14 of the 33-strong ferry fleet run is older than that, with eight, including Hebridean Isles, past their 30th birthday.

The ferry group which first met in 2014 is run by Transport Scotland and chaired by the Director of Aviation, Maritime, Freight and Canals, Frances Pacitti. The agency says it is supposed to meet up to three times a year and is "intended to inform ministers' policy development having regard to a wide range of views".

The expert group was formed after the publication of the ten-year Scottish Ferries Plan in December 2012, laying out the Scottish Government's desire to have ongoing consultation for all ferry-related issues.

It came after ministers rejected proposals for an independent ferry regulator subsidised by the Scottish Government and commercial operators saying there was "limited support" for the idea.

But plan documents state: "We are keen to involve key local expert interests in our arrangements for wider consultation. This will ensure that we have access to the widest possible expertise before key decisions are made."

This led to the formation of the group which included a range of experts and industry chiefs from consultants Alf Baird and Roy Pedersen to the chief executive of the state-controlled ferry fleet owners Caledonian Maritime Assets, CalMac executive Brian Fulton and Western Ferries managing director Gordon Ross.

An investigation by MSPs on the Scottish Parliament rural economy and connectivity committee into the procurement of ferries set to serve the Western Isles found the fiasco was a “catastrophic failure”.

The Scottish Government took the yard into public ownership in December 2019 after the directors of Ferguson Marine filed a notice of intention to appoint administrators in August 2019.

The company collapsed as the ferries contract was plagued by design changes, delays and disputes over cost, with Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), the Scottish Government-controlled taxpayer-funded company which owns and procures ferries and Ferguson Marine owner Jim McColl blaming each other.

Warnings were raised about the country’s “ageing fleet”, with the committee accusing multiple government administrations of failing to deliver a competent strategy for replacing them.

The Herald:

The former committee convener, Highlands and Islands MSP Edward Mountain has criticised the failure of ministers to deal with the ferry fiasco fall out.

He further criticised transport minister Graeme Dey for failing to meet representatives of Ferguson Marine this summer, as concerns continue over the delivery of lifeline ferrie “This is further evidence that this Scottish Government is playing lip service to our island communities. I can not understand how they can claim delivery of ferries is important when the group tasked with providing advice on key strategic issues affecting ferry services in Scotland, has not met in over two years," he said.

"It is said that the group had not met due to Covid. While the rest of us have adapted to meeting virtually, it appears the Scottish Government have virtually given up on ferries."

He added: “It is absolutely astounding that the new SNP transport minister failed to meet with either Ferguson Marine Ltd or its turnaround director, Tim Hair, during the summer.

“Delivering the long-delayed Hulls 801 and 802 should be a top priority but it obviously isn’t for Graeme Dey.

"I now question whether the SNP Government remain fully committed to Ferguson Shipyard, especially as they were recently overlooked for a £100m contract to build two new vessels to serve Islay.

"Indeed, what are the SNP’s plans for the future of the shipyard once Hulls 801 and 802 are completed?

“It’s also rather telling that during a summer of repeated ferry breakdowns, the SNP Transport Minister only held informal meetings with the communities affected and did not undertake any follow-up actions.

“Our island communities are suffering daily disruptions to the ferry network and the least they should expect is a Transport Minister who is willing to take significant action at the first opportunity.

“The fact this hasn’t been the case reflects very poorly on the SNP government and adds yet another reason as to why we need an urgent public inquiry into the SNP’s management of our ferry network.”

The Herald:

Mr Baird, a member of the advisory group said he was not surprised by the failure to meet.

"After the CMAL/Ferguson disaster - which is not finished - and endless other operational mishaps with the state of the 'ferry network', the last people officials would wish to see are those who say I 'told you so'.

"Roy and I were used to, when allowed, making our very brief contributions at meetings and highlighting what was being done wrong or badly and how it might best be remedied, and the response from Transport Scotland officials was usually 'well, lets now move on to the next item on the agenda' - which was often some essentially bland and pointless matter to do with endless 'consultations with stakeholders', most of whom had little idea of even basic ferry economics, or the 'ferry replacement programme' which is a rather unbelievable fairy tale repeatedly told."

Ministers say they are looking at "credible, affordable and viable options" to improve resilience, such as the recent short term charter of the MV Arrow on the Stornoway to Ullapool route and the deal to buy the MV Utne to operate on the Oban to Craignure route.

But it said it "must be recognised that finding suitable vessels on a short term basis is challenging in the current market".

They said that Transport Scotland is working with CMAL, CalMac, communities and key ferry stakeholders on individual projects and the delivery of a "wider investment strategy".

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "The Minister for Transport maintains an active interest in the progress of these vessels and receives regular reports as a matter of course.

“Whilst the management and maintenance of the vessels is an operational issue for CalMac, we recognise communities’ frustration during periods of disruption. We are doing everything that we can to support CalMac to maximise available capacity across the network.

“We acknowledge the CMAL fleet is aging and as such we are delivering new tonnage to support our communities by working with CMAL, CalMac, MSPs, community representatives and others to develop investment programmes - at least £580 million over the next five years - for major vessels and small vessels."