Last week Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil chaired a meeting with interested parties on the Argyll Ferries passenger service between Gourock and Dunoon.
An unconfirmed and unofficial account of this meeting was published online, asserting that, at the meeting. Mr Neil informed those present that he had ‘told’ Argyll Ferries to replace the MV Ali Cat on the route with a vehicle and passenger boat.
This gave rise to substantial local expectations over the weekend that the Dunoon Ferries Action Group had won its case; and that Dunoon was to see the return of the second vehicle service between the two destinations for which it has so vigorously, if so irrationally, fought.
Unable to believe that, in the light of the governing legal context, the Cabinet Secretary could have said any such thing – but willing to accept that in the world we live in, legal constraints might have been circumvented or reinterpreted, we set out to establish the facts.
This morning we contacted the Cabinet Secretary’s office and Transport Scotland asking for a formal clarification of the situation.
For Argyll’s questions
We then submitted the following questions by email:
‘A website in Cowal has recently published an account of a meeting last week, in which account it asserts that Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil assured those present – including Michael Russell MSP, Argyll Ferries, Archie Robertson CEO of David MacBrayne Ltd and a constituent of Mr Russell’s – that he had ‘told’ Argyll Ferries to replace the MV Ali Cat with a vehicle and passenger ferry on the Gourock Dunoon route.
‘Since this is a matter of substantial public interest on a variety of fronts, we would welcome an authoritative statement on what Mr Neil actually said.
‘In terms of the full legal context of the Argyll Ferries contract, we cannot see that the Cabinet Secretary can have so instructed Argyll Ferries – and therefore cannot have said what he is alleged to have said.
‘We accept, though, that our understanding may be incomplete – hence we would welcome clarification towards a secure grasp of the legal situation as the Scottish Government perceives it.
‘How might such a change as reported be legally made to the Argyll Ferries service on the Gourock Dunoon route within the life of that company’s current contract?
‘How would competition law impact on such a scenario?
‘Would the current contract have to be aborted and the route re-tendered publicly to a different specification than was the case in 2011?
‘What specification would be required to ensure that the requirements of European Law would be observed in preventing any actual or hidden cross-subsidisation of the vehicle service (which is illegal) by the passenger service (which may legally be subsidised)?
‘We look forward to a timely response from you on a matter which is clearly in the present consciousness of both the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and the Transport Minister, meaning that such issues must already be clear to them and are guiding their words and actions.’
The Scottish Government response
Earlier this evening we received the following response from a spokesperson for Transport Scotland.
‘Following concerns raised locally regarding the certification and use of the MV AliCat on the Gourock-Dunoon ferry service, the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, Alex Neil chaired a meeting in Glasgow last week to fully consider and discuss the issues.
‘The meeting was attended by the Chair and Chief Executive of Argyll Ferries Limited (AFL); senior representatives of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA); Transport Scotland staff; Captain Sandy Ferguson, a retired CalMac senior member of staff and adviser to the Dunoon-Gourock Ferry Action Group; and Mike Russell, in his capacity as the local constituency MSP.
‘The MCA representatives explained their recent action in serving an Improvement Notice on AFL and the AFL attendees confirmed their full acceptance of the issues set out in the Improvement Notice.
‘Mr Neil was pleased to note that AFL have already acted and implemented improvements to address all of the issues raised. Mr Neil made it absolutely clear that AFL must fully accept the terms of the Notice, in order to restore confidence to the local users. The MCA agreed to Mr Neil’s request for an ongoing quarterly review to ensure that the MV AliCat was being operated by AFL in strict accordance with the certification issued by the MCA.
‘Looking forward, Mr Neil reaffirmed his commitment to the feasibility study into a future passenger and vehicle service on the route and to working towards a permanent solution for the service.
‘Ministers’ policy and aspirations for the Gourock-Dunoon town centre to town centre service is clear, as are the legal constraints under which the Government must work.
‘Work on the three-point plan announced by Alex Neil back in Dunoon on 14 February continues, with the steering group bringing together local campaigners, local councillors and the Cabinet Secretary. A number of meetings have been held to discuss matters and move the issues forward.
‘A study is planned into the feasibility of operating a vehicle and passenger ferry on the route, with the vehicle portion unsubsidised in line with European Commission requirements.
‘The terms of reference for this study have been developed with the full involvement of the local Ferry Action Group and the two local Councils. One issued the study will explore is how vessels could be provided and financed. The study will report by the end of the year.’
The government statement does not answer our focused questions and it is telling that it does not choose to do so.
It has, however, had to declare the realities it prefers to disguise, albeit in soft focus and with much use of dry ice.
This official statement, which is formally on the record, does not – because it cannot – say that the Cabinet Secretary said at last week’s meeting that he had ‘told’ Argyll Ferries to replace the Ali Cat with a vehicle and passenger ferry.
It does not say – because it cannot – that such a replacement will happen.
It limits the Cabinet Secretary’s ‘commitment’ as being to the feasibility study he has commissioned.
It allies to that, a commitment to ‘working towards a permanent solution for the service.’ That does not imply or indicate any specific permanent solution; and there can be no doubt that the government will be relieved when it can lay this matter to rest.
In saying that ‘ Ministers’ policy and aspirations for the Gourock-Dunoon town centre to town centre service is clear’ and immediately saying ‘as are the legal constraints under which the Government must work’, the reality of the situation is unequivocal. This has always been obvious and is as For Argyll has consistently said and shown.
The ‘ Ministers’ policy and aspirations for the Gourock-Dunoon town centres service is clear’.
Indeed it is. It is clear because the present service was decided upon and brought about by this government.
It would be ludicrous to suggest that any government, never mind one with an unprecedented overall majority at Holyrood, would not effect its own aspirations – where it had the power to do so.
That is where the second part of this sentence comes into play, saying that, equally clear, are: ‘the legal constraints under which the Government must work’.
The phrase ‘legal constraints’ and the word ‘must’ together vindicate every aspect of For Argyll’s settled analysis of the situation.
Hence the government has given the town a passenger ferry service with a capacity and a sailing frequency that its modest usage and significant cost could not defend.
But rather than understanding and being glad of how uniquely favoured the town has been, the Dunoon camoaigners continue to complain and to threaten.
As we have shown in our demonstration of the unimaginably large total passenger and vehicle transport capacity available to Dunoon – against an underwhelming usage tally, the Dunoon-Gourock Ferries Action Group campaigners would be advised to focus their energies on negotiating for all possible improvements to the delivery of the passenger service they have.
If they do not do so and continue to be a selfish and irrational one note samba, the government would be entitled, given the facts of the current substantial overcapacity, simply to walk away in 2017 when the Argyll ferries contract is up. This would leave Dunoon with the very capable Western Ferries service, which can certainly deliver on the current demand – and then some.
Smoke and mirrors
Over half of the volume of the statement – and the first half of it, is dedicated to an overheated rehash of an issue of no more than theoretical impact – the MCA improvement notice issued to Argyll Ferries.
This has caused much scaremongering while it amounts, literally, to a lack of current paperwork for the Ali Cat to sail in the most infinitesmal amount of wintertime Class 4 waters – relating only to the final metres of its sheltered approach to berthing at Dunoon.
This problem has arisen because the Scottish Government did not think to ask the MCA to include in the description ‘the old pier at Dunoon’ this last tiny stretch of adjacent water within the Class 3 territory it defines for winter usage without an onboard safety boat.
The Ali Cat has previously been licensed to go deep into Class 4 waters in winter – down to Loch Striven, when the Maersk boats were laid up there. So the boat is judged by the MCA to be perfectly safe for passenger transport on Class 4 waters in winter. And, lacking the necessary paperwork as it did for a while, passengers were at no aggravated risk whatsoever.
Our earlier article – Russell stance on Argyll Ferries raises serious questions – has laid out the facts of this issue; as has our article on the confusions surrounding the matter - Dunoon ferry services: facts and fancies; and our article on the issue of overcapacity on this route: Research reveals shock insights into reality of Dunoon ferry service provision.
One cannot blame a departmental communications service for doing its best to provide some cover for a minister in a corner. However, the bonfire this statement attempted to light on an issue that was never of substance and has no relevance whatsoever to the issues we raised this morning, is an obvious and unsuccesful ploy.
This controversy is emotional, not rational. It has been fanned into continuation beyond its natural lifespan by politics so feeble as to try to gain temporary respite from noise by holding out hopes that cannot be fulfilled; and that the government knows to be unrealisable.
This has done damage to Dunoon in preventing it from moving on as it would otherwise have done.
Beyond the agit-prop brigade, Dunoon is not an unreasonable place, But it has seen some folk mischievously frightened for campaign advantage and the town itself kept in a ferment by the constant stoking of an that can go nowhere except play out to the inevitable conclusions of the feasibility study that was never more than a dummy to suck on for the time being.
No feasibilty study can make legal something which is not; or make financially viable a service which is commercially unsustainable.
The crux of the matter is, as this statement says, ‘the legal constraints under which the Government must work’.