For anyone who has followed closely what has ensued from the Tory privatisation spree that began in the days of Margaret Thatcher, the Scottish Government’s plans for ferry services operated by Caledonian MacBrayne should be heartening.

It is, after all, important to learn from mistakes. In the case of many privatisation decisions, there should have been no need to wait to see these confirmed as major errors before learning lessons because it was obvious beforehand.

The privatisation of the former British Rail has been a shambles.

There has been great turbulence in some of the big passenger franchises over the years, to put it mildly. Several franchise agreements have come completely unstuck. The notion of the best value for customers being the lowest price is a bizarre one, given the importance of people having a quality, reliable service.

It has oftentimes, when it has come to the passenger rail franchises, looked like a race to the bottom.




North of the Border, the Scottish Government stepped in to take over ScotRail.

On the infrastructure side of things, the stock market listed Railtrack collapsed and was replaced with the not-for-profit Network Rail, which certainly represented a big step forward.

Along the way, we have had huge windfalls for executives who led the privatisation of the rolling stock companies.

And, returning to the large number of passenger franchises formed with British Rail’s privatisation, the array of different operators and ticket types has surely baffled many people over the years.

All in all, it is difficult to conclude anything other than that things were far better when British Rail was a single, integrated entity.

We also had the privatisation of the energy sector, which began when Mrs Thatcher was prime minister and was continued after she resigned in November 1990.

It does not take a genius to work out how that has gone. Energy prices in the UK are sky high. The country’s lack of energy security is woeful. And quite a lot of people have made large amounts of money along the way, while the public has paid the price.

Both the rail and energy privatisation sprees suggest that such a sell-off of key assets, where this leads to short-termism on driving up profits and enriching shareholders as it seems always to do, is not at all conducive to joined-up thinking and strategic investment.

When these assets were in public ownership, decisions were made on a very long-term view and with an impressive degree of expertise, for all the right reasons.

Given the scale of investment required in such assets, a long-term approach within a stable structure is crucial.

And we have seen what can happen when that is lost.

The last thing that is needed when it comes to essential services for the public is flash corporate types, often with little experience of the industry as was seen in the energy sector for example, causing mayhem.

Returning to the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services, and what the Scottish Government said about them last week, what was particularly uplifting was its plan for a clearer focus on “delivery of a public service”.

Service delivery has often been woeful in the UK’s privatised energy and rail sectors when it has come to value for money, reliability, and quality. Some operators have obviously been better than others but it has been a sorry state of affairs overall, and one that has not worked for the public.

Minister for Transport Fiona Hyslop revealed the Scottish Government’s preference to award the next contract to operate the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services directly to incumbent CalMac Ferries Ltd, as opposed to putting it out to competitive tender on the open market, in a statement to Holyrood last week. CalMac Ferries Ltd is owned by the Scottish Government.

Transport Scotland, a Scottish Government agency, noted: “A due diligence process has been launched to establish the feasibility of a direct award using the ‘Teckal exemption’, in accordance with the Public Contracts Scotland Regulations 2015. It will look at the award from a financial, operational and legal perspective, with a view to a final decision being taken next summer.

“Direct engagement with communities and stakeholders will be crucial in order to inform the development of the new contract, regardless of the chosen procurement route.”

Having lived and worked in communities served by these vital services, there is no doubting such direct engagement with those reliant on the ferries is crucial.

There has been much contention around the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services in recent times but it is important to stand back and understand what this has been about.

We have had the procurement woe over the two new ferries for CalMac being built at Ferguson Marine in Port Glasgow, involving huge delays and major cost overruns.

This has been a lamentable situation. However, it is also one that has been amplified to the max by opposition politicians at Holyrood. When it has come to criticism from the Scottish Tories, it has been as if the Conservative Government at Westminster has not been involved in much greater procurement blunders such as botched sourcing of personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic. The failures over PPE cost the taxpayer many billions of pounds.

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The delays to the arrival of the new ferries being built by Ferguson, which was taken into public ownership by the Scottish Government in 2019, have put a major strain on the overall CalMac fleet.

And it is clearly important that CalMac has the fleet it needs to serve fragile island communities well. CalMac is not itself responsible for procurement, however. This is the role of Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL), which is also owned by the Scottish Government.

Returning to the Scottish Government’s proposals on the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services, Ms Hyslop said: “I am acutely aware of the vital importance of these lifeline services for our island communities and that is why we must look at the optimum model for the next contract to ensure improvements across the network.”

It would be impossible to disagree with any of that, surely.

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She added: “A direct award to CalMac would help change the ethos of the service by shifting the focus from a commercial arrangement to a model more focused on the delivery of a public service. This would help drive service improvements, deliver better communications with communities and introduce meaningful performance indicators that better reflect the experience of passengers using the services.

“It would also provide us with the opportunity to consider adding CalMac as a relevant authority under the Islands (Scotland) 2018 Act, strengthening the ability of communities to feed into impact assessments to inform future changes.”

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And Ms Hyslop noted the contract award would “sit alongside important policy measures to improve our ferry services, such as the Island Connectivity Plan and Fair Fares Review, as well as our significant investment in new vessels and infrastructure”.

This all sounds like a good plan.

In fact, it seems like exactly the kind of joined-up, long-term plan that was present in the electricity and gas, and rail sectors before the Tory privatisation binge.

Surely even ideologically entrenched Tories could not disagree with the idea of a model more focused on delivery of a public service. Then again, given past experience, maybe they could.