EXECUTIVES of the state-owned ferry operator CalMac and ministers have been warned they are acting unlawfully in the way that Scotland's ferry services have been cut to deal with ferry shortages.

Concerns have emerged that there has been a failure to conduct island communities' impact assessments or consult over the method used to decide how services are axed due to breakdowns of Scotland's ageing ferry fleet in breach of the Scottish Government's ground-breaking Islands (Scotland) Act made law in 2018.

Angus Campbell, chairman of CalMac's independent community board, established as part of CalMac's franchise bid, confirmed there has been no discussion with them over CalMac's route prioritisation matrix in advance of being brought in last year. The algorithm attempts to place ferries in positions to ensure the least impact on the public.

Concerns have surfaced after CalMac chief executive Robbie Drummond attended a heated public meeting on South Uist which has consistently suffered cuts to services as the ferry operator shifts its fleet around to deal with the loss of two ferries.

It is the second week of visits after CalMac decided to cancel ferries between the mainland port of Mallaig and Lochboisdale on South Uist for the whole of June with local businesses estimating a loss of £50,000 per day due to tourism, imports and exports being hit by the cut.

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South Uist has been consistently hit by cancellations to services through the CalMac route prioritisation matrix.

An estimated 500 residents, 200 cars, 40 vans and 20 lorries converged on Lochboisdale - the port which links South Uist to the mainland - on June 4 to protest about the cancellations and CalMac chief executive Robbie Drummond made a trip to meet islanders last week to explain the decision.

The Act tasks public bodies under law to consider the specific needs of islands when developing policies and strategies.

It says that relevant authorities "must" prepare an island communities impact assessment in relation to a "policy, strategy or service" which is likely to have an effect on island communities.

And if an impact assessment is not done, the authority has to publish as "soon as reasonably practicable afterwards" an explanation of its reasons for not doing so.

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Mr Campbell, a Lewis businessman and former leader of the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar said that CalMac had obligations under the Act which he thinks have not been fulfilled.

"It is annoying us," he said. "We had no input to the matrix. We had no influence on how it worked.

"We are annoyed that there is some portrayal that we were involved. We weren't. We wouldn't back it.

"Impact assessments should have been done. They are a public body that should be going through the processes.

"This signals a lack of consultation and knowing your communities. You shouldn't be telling people afterwards what is happening.

"I have told Robbie Drummond that we were not part of the process and we will tell government.

"I was leader of the Western Isles council when we were campaigning for the Act and we are aware of the obligations."

The Herald: Passengers wait to board the CalMac ferry, Caledonian Isles at  Ardrossan bound for Brodick on Arran...Photograph by Colin Mearns.29 November 2022.For The Herald Magazine, see story by Mark Smith.

John Daniel Peteranna of the Lochboisdale Ferry Business Impact Group, which organised a South Uist protest over lifeline service cuts attracting more than 500 people earlier this month said it was "clear" that the lack of consultation breaches the Act.

"There was no consultation. And we are no clearer on what the matrix is. "Why isn't CalMac acting on the Islands Act?"

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A ferry user group official said there have been wider issues over government and CalMac's observance of the Act in past decisions.

They included a "discriminatory" first-come-first-serve booking service for lifeline ferries which sees islanders having to book three to four weeks in advance just to get on and off.

"Islanders have to be in the forefront of the thinking of the decision-makers," he said. "But they are not. It feels like we are part of ticked box exercise. Have we apologised? Tick. Have we visited the island after the fact? Tick."

Scottish Government-owned CalMac Ferries Ltd amassed nearly £12m in fines for poor performance since it took charge of lifeline services. And there have been growing calls for that money to be used to compensate islanders hit by the cancellations.

The bid has been rebuffed by the Scottish Government which points out that penalties are used to improve the resilience of the existing fleet following network failures. Penalties were said to have "part-funded" the £9m emergency nine month charter of MV Alfred from Pentland Ferries. The vessel cost the ferry company just £5m more to buy in 2019.

The Herald: MV Alfred made it's first official sailing to Arran on Friday

But Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government have so far been unable to say how much has actually been spent on MV Alfred or what other projects the penalties have been spent on.

It is understood that CalMac decided to cancel South Uist services because it would impact the least number of customers and that customers could use alternative routes to get there.

Joe Reade, chairman of the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee said CalMac's task in deciding who loses when handling an ageing fleet was an "impossible" one with the ferry operator having to juggle their vessels based on operational and technical situations that "restrict what they can do".

They included the fact that some vessels cannot berth at Lochboisdale because they are too big.

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"The reason South Uist is vulnerable is because there are viable alternatives and of all the major routes it is relatively little used. When things are so desperate and you have to cut a service it is difficult not to conclude the Mallaig to Lochboisdale is one you have to go for.

"It is appalling that is happening. But when you have to understand the difficult choices CalMac has to make.

"And it is incredibly difficult when you are operating a fleet of old and inappropriate boats."

Ferry users were told ten days ago that an internal review of the matrix was expected to start in the following few days and that a response was expected in a week to ten days.

It comes as islanders still wait for two new lifeline ferries being built at the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Inverclyde to finally set sail after over five years of delay and with costs thought to be quadruple the original £97m contract.

In March it was confirmed that due to "persistent design gaps and build errors" the first of the two Ferguson Marine vessels, Glen Sannox is scheduled for autumn 2023 rather than the end of May 2023 with a "contract backstop" of no later than the end of December 2023.

The Herald:

Hull 802 is now not expected to set sail till the autumn of 2024 having already been delayed to the end of March 2024. The contract backstop was stated as being at the end of December 2024.

They were originally due to set sail in mid-2018 with one initially to serve Arran and the other to serve the Skye triangle routes to North Uist and Harris, but they are well over five years late. It is suggested the costs of delivery may quadruple compared to the original £97m contract costs.

The two ferries for CalMac were ordered in 2015 when Ferguson Marine was owned by Jim McColl, a then pro-independence businessman who rescued the Inverclyde yard from administration a year earlier.

When the build ran into trouble, the shipyard firm fell into administration and was nationalised with Mr McColl and the government-owned ferry owning and procurement agency CMAL blaming each other for the fiasco.

CalMac said that it had conducted an engagement meeting about a review of the matrix with the Ferries Community Board on June 16.

Robbie Drummond, chief executive of CalMac said: "On Tuesday night listened to a range of views from South Uist residents and representatives from the community and businesses, who are understandably angry that their ferry connections have been cancelled. I am grateful to the many people who came along to talk to us about the impact and stress that the loss of the Lochboisdale service is causing to them.

“I have committed to review the matrix, which we use to help determine how to provide services across the network when we lose major vessels. This will include stakeholders such as the Ferries Community Board. It is important that this is done properly and we will ensure that we consult and engage with as many communities as possible.

“We also committed to spending more time in our communities so we can listen and understand their real experiences and how we can make our service better.

“We are confident that MV Finlaggan will complete annual maintenance as planned by 26 June so that MV Lord of the Isles can return to the Lochboisdale service at the latest from 1 July. These sailings are available for customers to book through to 15 October 2023.”