Public anxiety on the west coast of Scotland has been growing over the Scottish Government’s intentions for the delivery of the Clyde and Hebridean Ferry Services.
These are the ‘lifeline services’, shortly to go to tender [?] and currently delivered as a single contracted obligation by the state owned operator, Caledonian Ferries Limited, or CalMac.
There are two core issues of concern on what lies ahead:
- whether the services currently delivered through a single contract will continue to be tendered that way or ‘unbundled’ and offered as a series of potentially free standing contracts;
- whether, if they are to be tendered as one contract, the current operator will be – not to put too fine a point on it – forced out of business by its own owner, the Scottish Government, in the deliberate award of the contract to a private sector competitor.
This is no unhinged flight of imagination. In May this year, a surprise award of the Northern Isles Ferry Services was made to a private sector company, Serco. The incumbent, CalMac’s sister state owned company NorthLink, lost and two months later had ceased to exist. The circumstances surrounding the letting of this contract were and remain strange. But whatever else, the management of that contract indicates an unmistakable direction of travel in the Scottish Government’s intent for the delivery of the west coast services.
The First Minister’s statements
As public attention to this subject began to intensify, the First Minister recently felt it necessary to announce, in the way of politicians, that the government had ‘no plans’ to unbundle the west coast ferry services. Who does not know what that means – and does not mean?
Days later, on 11th September, in response to an oral parliamentary question on security of employment of CalMac staff from Dave Thompson MSP, Mr Salmond was unequivocal that the routes would not be unbundled but would be tendered as a single contract. The nuancing in the exchanges between First Minister and questioning MSP of his own party was such as to indicate that neither were envisaging the current operator continuing.
That exchange did, however, seem to settle the first issue identified above. The government was not going to unbundle the routes and was not going to entertain the spectacle of multiple operators delivering the lifeline west coast services between them.
Transport Minister’s statement
Then, on Tuesday 18th September, Transport Minister Keith Brown issued the following statement on the tendering of Clyde and Hebrides ferry services, having just spoken on the subject in the Scottish Parliament:
‘The Scottish Government is absolutely committed to supporting our island communities and we are continuing to invest millions in new cutting edge ferries, ports and harbours fit for the 21st century.
‘Despite deep budget cuts by Westminster, our record investment in new cutting edge technology is delivering modern ferries such as the £25 million MV Finlaggan, the two new cutting-edge hybrid vessels under construction on the Clyde and a £42 million ferry for the Stornoway-Ullapool route
‘As I said in my statement of 5 September to the Chamber, on the subject of Ferries to Orkney, our next challenge is the replacement of the contract for the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services which expires in October next year.
‘Despite recent speculation, no final decisions have been made regarding the Clyde and Hebridean Ferry Service (CHFS) tender. We are currently considering our approach to fulfilling the tendering requirements to ensure we can deliver a ferry service that matches our aspirations.
‘We will be announcing our plans for the procurement of the next contract soon and we can assure local communities, ferry users and the service providers that, as well as Parliament, they will be among the first to be informed of our final decision.
‘By the end of this, we will fulfil our promise to publish the Final Ferries Plan and this provide a blueprint for improvements to ferry services across the country. This plan will set down the foundation for a programme of investments that clearly demonstrates our commitment to our island communities and to the ferries serving them.’
Dissecting the Transport Minister’s statement
The big issue here is that this statement is obviously rolling back what the First Minister had publicly said about not unbundling the routes. The door Mr Salmond closed has here been reopened by the Transport Minister who says, in writing , that ‘no final decisions have been made regarding the Clyde and Hebridean Ferry Service (CHFS) tender.’
No one should imagine that this reversal can be happening without the First Minister’s agreement. He clearly needed Brown to fill in the hole he’d dug.
So multiple operators were never out of the frame. Scotland’s west coast ferry services could be headed for the same impenetrable morass as England’s train services.
Let’s discount from Mr Brown’s statement everything related to the now tedious mantra trotted out by all government ministers these days, on all occasions, relevant or not, about how different things might be if it wasn’t for Westminster’s cuts. Governments are elected to govern as best they can in the present moment, making the best strategic use of what is available now.
Then let’s discount all expressions of commitment to communities, services and aspirations. They mean nothing to politicians. They use them as decoy devices to distract the attention of the gullible and make them feel warm.
The first remark of substance in the statement is: ‘…our next challenge is the replacement of the contract for the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services which expires in October next year’. It is indeed – unless they do as we have said we believe they will and postpone the tender until safely after the independence referendum in the Autumn of 2014.
The Minister”s declaration: ‘no final decisions have been made regarding the Clyde and Hebridean Ferry Service (CHFS) tender’ is clearly intended to reassure. Why should it? How long have they had to think about this matter? The answer is – from half way through their first administration. The Scottish Ferries Review process began way back in 2009.
Three years to work out a strategy for anything has to be on or over the maximum in an electoral system based on four year terms where no party can count on more than that.
If the government have indeed not yet come to any conclusions on how they see these lifeline services delivered, what has Transport Scotland been doing for the past three years? The Ferries Review has been trundling on and the final document should have been published by now.
This is the document that is to lay out the strategy the government has adopted from the review process for the delivery of, they say, ‘improvements to ferry services across the country’ – following a prolonged gestation period.
What that strategy should lead to is the framing of the tendering of west coast services delivery. But, as far too often, strategy here is to be retrospective rather than guiding implementation as it is supposed to do.
The government, as the Transport Minister admits in this statement, is going to do what it wants to do first – and then afterwards make the strategy fit whatever that is. And then publish that strategy.
Cart. Horse. Or horse and cart in retreat.
Mr Brown says [and the emphases are ours]: ‘We will be announcing our plans for the procurement of the next contract soon and we can assure local communities, ferry users and the service providers that, as well as Parliament, they will be among the first to be informed of our final decision.
‘By the end of this, we will fulfil our promise to publish the Final Ferries Plan and thus provide a blueprint for improvements to ferry services across the country. This plan will set down the foundation for a programme of investments that clearly demonstrates our commitment to our island communities and to the ferries serving them.’
What – exactly – do you do with ‘a blueprint for improvements to ferry services across the country’, when you have already issued a tender or tenders whose shape and outcome will become that blueprint?
This can mean only one of two things. They know what they’re doing or they don’t – but they certainly know what they want to do and they’re going to do it regardless. Some sort of a fudge of a document will emerge at some point – bare of strategy [for whose existence there is no evidence] but morphed into a logistics summary, descending from what has already been set in place in the procurement exercise.
The bottom line
If the government does, as we expect – seek to protect the ‘Yes’ votes in the 2014 Independence Referendum by finding some reason to postpone the tendering of the west coast services until after that - it can mean only one thing. They know that what they are determined to do will lose them votes.
Whatever reason they might advance to justify this delay would be fascinating – given how long they have been running the Review – and would receive vigorous scrutiny.
But how would they defend, as they would need to do, a delay to both the tendering and the publication of the Review – which the Transport Minister has now committed to follow rather than precede the tendering?
Supposing they postponed the procurement until some time in 2015, after an October 2014 vote; and tried to convince people that the Review should naturally be published after that – how do they excuse a ferries review process which would then have taken over six years from its inception, producing nothing but a draft review which is a message to Santa Claus without one shred of strategy in it?
The reality is that the failure to create a strategy for the lifeline west coast ferry services has arisen because the government has for some time now put governing in a poor second place to the promotion of independence.
This is a failure to understand that the basis of the support they have had was their competence in government, when they once paid attention to governing.
Note: This is the first of two articles examining the situation around the whenever tendering of the west coast lifeline ferry services. The second will be published some time later today. It will focus on the evidence for the government’s intent, the proof of absence of strategy and the position of Caledonian Ferries Limited.