A Tory minister once had to apologise in parliament for saying that, in pressing on, he wasn’t doing so with “his bow doors open”. It was a crass and insensitive remark, coming days after almost 200 had lost their lives when the Herald of Free Enterprise sank outside Zeebrugge, partly due to having commenced sailing in that way.
Now hull 802 isn’t a ro-ro ferry and no lives will hopefully ever be lost on any ferry sailing in Scottish waters, but I can’t help thinking of that phrase when viewing the actions of the Scottish Government. Hull 801, now named the Glen Sannox, has been an unmitigated disaster for Ferguson Marine, the government and the communities meant to be served by it.
Five years late and many tens of millions over budget, it’s now due to sail at Christmas. That’s a relief but numerous problems still remain with the design for both those sailing her and to be supplied by her. The design and fuelling system are at best overcomplex, if not fundamentally flawed.
Why then continue with another ship of exactly the same design? That is pressing on with your bow doors open, especially when it’s not the vessel that communities want, or even that those sailing it desire. It’s been the design that has plagued Ferguson Marine. And while the skills remain, the yard’s survival is imperative.
It smacks of a fire sale to allow the government to offload the yard, as nobody will buy it without work for it to do. Carrying on with it seems a carrot for purchasers. But it doesn’t best serve fragile communities, nor the yard’s long-term future. It’s a huge cost but also a huge risk.
So, what should be done? Firstly, by all means finish off hull 801 but no more ships of that design. Lease a ship in for the communities and work on a design that’s cheaper, better, and what both crew and communities wish. The designs are out there and have been offered to the Scottish Government for a song.
That ship should and must be built at Ferguson’s even if there’s a delay. In the interim, keeping the yard open’s essential but there’s work to be done and which they should do. There are seven smaller ferries required for other island routes. Give them that order and let them crack on. The yard’s better suited to smaller ferries given the lack of a huge hangar to operate under for larger vessels, a factor that has no doubt impeded work on 801.
Who should run the Ferguson yard? Frankly, I’m surprised that the Scottish Government has decided to sell a state asset. For sure, there have been management failures. But they could have leased the yard for a nominal fee but retained ownership. That said, selling it to Jim McColl for a pound’s neither flippant from him nor daft, and remains a sensible proposal.
Let him crack on, initially with the small isles ferries, and then with the replacement for 802. By then more space will be required and compulsory purchasing Inch Green Dock at Greenock, rather than having it sitting idle or used as a breakers yard, would allow for expansion on the Clyde. That’s a better plan than pressing on with your bow doors open.