MINISTERS have come under fire for a failure to properly consult and communicate with islanders and businesses over future ferry services as they seek to replace the nation's ageing and failing vessels which provide lifeline services to island communities.

The Scotch Whisky Association and the Scottish Government's Highland and Islands Enterprise agency have highlighted issues in having open discussions over plans for new ferries and timetables.

Martin Johnson, director of strategy and regional economy at HIE warned island communities "did not feel ownership of key decisions that are so material to their well being, to the economy and to the society".

And he warned that if there was a magic wand that gave the communities a reliable and robust ferry service immediately, it would take a whole year for businesses on the islands to recover "to address the sort of negatives that people have experienced previously".

Concerns surfaced as 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  soaring from £97m to nearly £340m and delivery over five years late.

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Two weeks ago, the Scottish Government confirmed it was seeking to procure two new ferreis at a cost of £115m to support flagging CalMac lifeline services It is hoped that both ferries will be in place by 2026 and that they will serve the communities of Harris and North Uist, which have suffered severe disruption since the beginning of this year.

That came a matter of weeks after the construction of two other new lifeline ferries for Islay got officially underway six months after the £105m contract was controversially given to a Turkish shipyard.

Mr Johnson said: "My sense of speaking to to people is that how island communities are consulted, listened to and heard and then how decisions are prepared and choices are whittled down and ultimately has to be improved. My sense is that island communities do not feel ownership of key decisions that are so material to their well being, to the economy and to the society.

"Subject to clarification I don't believe that we are formally or even informally consulted on what we think of this design or that design. I think where that is best put, is through some of the structures such as a committee board and stakeholder groups to talk about what they need in terms of the characteristics, capacity and capability of the vessels."

He added: "The islanders themselves are the best people to just speak with authority about what they need from the ferry service in terms of size and capacity.

"The extent to which the Scottish Government's Transport Scotland engages in a meaningful way with with island communities... that engagement has to be meaningful so they have to both listen and hear what is being said to them and develop a service on that."

Mr Johnson, a Shetlander who lives in Inverness added: "People that live on islands, they know it is not going to be a Rolls Royce service. They know that there are choices to be made and everything that is wanted is not affordable. There is a balance to be struck. People know that. It's one of the things that you accept when you live on an island.

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Martin Johnson. Source: HIE

"But the decisions that are taken that affects the vital transport links have to be open and transparent. People have to understand why decisions have been taken. And they might disagree with those, but at least they would understand."

Peter Clark, industry deputy director of the Scotch Whisky Association said there had been issues with consultation over what the demands were of industry for new vessels - and said there was a live issue with the sole ferry available only able to take one tanker of spirits to serve Islay's whisky operations.

Islay has been a massive Scottish success story in recent years, with visitor numbers to the island soaring thanks to the increasing popularity of its distilleries and other attractions.

CalMac, the publicly-owned ferry operator, has traditionally served Islay with two vessels, the MV Finlaggan and the 37-year-old MV Hebridean Isles.

And Mr Clark warned MSPs on the net zero, energy and transport committee: "I would say we've had very little engagement on the design, feeding in our business needs for the new vessels particularly for the Islay route, but also in terms of timetabling and also vessel scheduling.

"And we have a live issue at the moment on Islay. We're down to running one vessel which is the Finlaggan and the issue that we have as an industry is because the way that the ferry has been designed, it can only accommodate one of our spirit tankers.

"So at the moment for each sailing, we can only move one tanker of spirit from the island to the mainland, and that's having an impact on on the members operations.

"We're urgently looking at solutions to that, but had better communication happened and we had known about this further in advance, it would have enabled our members to to make plans and mitigate against the impact that we're now facing. Again, that comes down to this sort of communication and engagement with key users of the of the services. "

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: "We will reflect carefully on the comments made by HIE and the Scotch Whisky Association. It is important that everyone with an interest in the future of Scotland’s ferry services feels they have a way to engage with the development of routes, vessels and services.

"As part of the forthcoming islands connectivity plan, we will set out a long-term investment programme for vessels and ports which the Project Neptune report called for and islanders need to see. There will be a period of consultation on that plan and we would of course welcome the views and input of statutory agencies like HIE as well as local businesses which transport goods, services and people to and from our islands."

A spokesman for Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), the Scottish Government-controlled firm which owns and procures ferries said: “We can confirm that all relevant communities and stakeholders were, and continue to be, consulted during the Islay ferry procurement process.

“Community and stakeholder engagement is carried out regularly and extensively by CMAL. Communities have been pressing for additional investment to ensure the fleet provides a resilient and reliable service. Indeed, key stakeholders such as the Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar have been engaging directly with ministers on this matter for some time. There will also be further in-depth engagement with the island’s ferry users on the details of the deployment opportunities presented by these new vessels.”