In the first state recognition of a private sector ferry operator, the 2014 New Year’s Honours has seen Andrew Banks of Pentland Ferries awarded the OBE for services to ferry services.
It is a signal honour that he and Pentland Ferries have been recognised in this way.
Pentland Ferries runs a vehicle and passenger ferry service from Gills Bay on the Caithness mainland opposite the Isle of Stroma, across the Pentland Firth and into St Margaret’s Hope on the north of South Ronaldsay, in the south east of Scapa Flow.
This is epic territory, in the fast flowing Pentland Firth, in waters that carry so much of Britain’s naval and merchant maritime history and in providing a fast direct service from the mainland to Orkney.
Pentland Ferries also served as the lifeline service to the Orkney Isles when the Scottish Government’s new contractor for the Northern Isles services, the troubled Serco, was unable to meet its contractual obligations for a replacement vessel earlier this year. The MV Hamnavoe, running the much longer route form Scrabster to Stromness in Orkney, broke down and was out of service for over a month with broken gearing.
With ferries vital to the nature and to the lives of communities in Argyll and the Isles, this will be widely seen as an imaginative and well earned award.
It also brings us the awareness that while our council is the bottom feeder in Scottish local government, with – on evidence – no responsible authority willing to do the first thing about it – we are not alone in having a council whose actions and decisions defy rational interpretation.
We have seen Argyll and Bute Council spend a fortune constructing a speculative linkspan ferry terminal in Dunoon for which there were no takers; and which Argyll Ferries was forced to use to its reputational damage, with linkspan embarcation and disembarcation unsuitable for its boats.
Orkney Islands Council [OIC] did the same sort of thing 25 years ago, building a terminal at Burwick in the south of South Ronaldsay, which remains seriously underused. Only the little passenger ferry service over to John O’Groats has been using it.
However, in the case of the Burwick terminal, there was a willing and interested user who was refused access by the council owner – in what can only be the sort of parochial obstructionism all responsible local authorities should rigorously avoid.[Few do - but to be fair, national government is no less insular, with the famous West Coast Rail Line tender fiasco exposing the covert culture within the Transport Department - 'Anyone But Branson'.]
Pentland Ferries – you guessed – asked OIC to pay to use the terminal when it began in 2000. Its request was refused.
It asked again in 2006 – when it had clearly become a successful operation – and was again refused.
It is now asking yet again – in 2013-14 – to lease or to buy the terminal from the council and, in either case, to develop the facility at its own expense.
As yet, it has been given no answer.
This terminal was built and is maintained by public money. Council’s are charged with the responsibility of applying ‘best value’ criteria in decision taking.
How has it been best value for the taxpayers of the Orkney Isles to have a terminal built with their money underused and underearning for 25 years? How can this cost to the public purse be defended over the past 13 years when it has been wholly avoidable, with Pentland a willing and rejected user of the facility?
We wonder what reasons were given for the continued refusal.
There is a second issue which ought to be improving Orkney Islands Council’s concentration on this matter.
We have noted above that, earlier this year Pentland Ferries became, by default, the lifeline service to the Orkney Isles when Serco’s MV Hamnavoe went out of service for a month or more, with no replacement vessel provided.
This same situation is to happen again – this Monday, 6th November 2o14 – when Pentland Ferries again becomes the lifeline service to these important islands, with the Hamnavoe going out of service for two weeks for her annual refit.
Pentland Ferries wants to be able to use the Burwick terminal in order to provide a faster and more frequent ferry service to the islands. Burwick would take its passage time down to half an hour. That would be such a winner for visitors to the north coast and isles.
It is in the clearest possible interests of the islanders that Pentland Ferries should operate out of Burwick – and very particularly since it is – and will remain, at least while Serco are the contract holder for the state subsidised Northern Isles services – the default lifeline service provider to the islands.
The better the service Pentland can provide, the better will be that lifeline service when it is called upon to fulfil this role; and Pentland’s lease or purchase would add to council revenues, with all development costs at Burwick met from their private sector pocket.
We are watching this situation with considerable interest, as will be Transport Scotland, knowing that the more satisfied Orcadians can be with the Pentland provision when the state service goes down, the less flak will come their way over the controversial Serco contract.
And congratulations again to Andrew Banks, who has been surprised by the unexpected honour, for the high level national recognition he has received for the service he and his ferry company provide in the compelling far north.