BAE are constructing the Type 26 frigate as part of a programme of eight new ships in the class. The contract for the first three ships alone is worth around £3.7 billion, and overall the programme is expected to sustain 1,700 jobs in Scottish shipbuilding until the 2030s.
It is not just on the Clyde that we see employment supported thanks to UK government spending. At Rosyth on the Forth, Babcock are building five new Type 31 frigates as part of a £1.25 billion deal, supporting around 2,500 jobs across the UK. It follows on from the construction at Rosyth of the two aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, a project with a combined cost of £6.2 billion.
Back across the country, Her Majesty’s Naval Base on the Clyde will soon be home to all Royal Navy submarines, and continues to receive £1.5 billion worth of infrastructure investment. It is now the second largest single site employer in Scotland (after only the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow), currently providing 6,800 jobs and expected to grow to 8,200 jobs in the future, not accounting for those supported indirectly in the local economy.
If ever there needed to be a practical demonstration of the positive benefit of Scotland being part of the United Kingdom, it can be seen in the new ships being built on the Clyde and the Forth, sustaining jobs and supporting local businesses.
Should Scotland ever vote to leave the United Kingdom, it is inconceivable that these jobs would continue, and that the taxpayers of England would be happy to see what would then be their new warships being built in a different country.
The Scotstoun yard is not, of course, the only shipbuilder on the Clyde. Further down the water at Post Glasgow we have Ferguson Marine, now wholly owned by the Scottish government, and where two new CalMac ferries still lie half-constructed, despite an original planned completion date of 2018.
The two ships, much needed by island communities, are not now due for completion until 2022 and 2023 respectively, and the costs have at least doubled from the originally contracted sum of £97 million. Few will be surprised if the completion dates are delayed further, and the total costs exceed the currently anticipated £200 million.
These new CalMac ferries have never been more needed. The existing CalMac fleet is creaking at the seams, with regular failures and breakdowns. CalMac’s largest ferry, the MV Loch Seaforth, serves the vital Stornoway to Ullapool route, but is currently out of service having suffered an engine failure last month. It was expected to be back on service on Friday, in time for the bank holiday weekend, but will now not resume sailings until Monday at the earliest.
In the meantime, CalMac have had to move ferries from other routes to keep services to the Western Isles running, causing problems elsewhere. One of the two regular summer season vessels serving Arran has had to be redeployed, leading to a temporary reduction in the service between Ardrossan and Brodick. At a time when a small island heavily dependent on tourism needs to have reliable connectivity to attract visitors, this is a most unwelcome development.
Across the west coast and islands, there are real concerns as to the future sustainability of the ferry services supporting communities. This week three SNP MSPs representing these areas are meeting the new Transport Minister Graham Dey to raise their concerns. The economic damage in what are already vulnerable communities could be substantial unless early solutions can be found.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this whole situation is that it should not have taken anyone by surprise.
Politicians have known for years that the current CalMac fleet is ageing and prone to breakdown, and needs a major replacement programme.
In its report published in December last year, the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee stated that it was “extremely concerned by the overall age profile of Scotland’s ferry fleet, with many vessels now operating significantly beyond their originally planned operational lifespan”.
The committee went on to say that it was “concerned that the Scottish government’s approach to the procurement and construction of new vessels to serve Scotland’s ferry network had been short-term, piecemeal and lacking in strategic direction”.
If the SNP government are relying on the Ferguson yard to provide all the new ferry vessels that Scotland’s island communities need, then they are going to be waiting a long time. In the meantime, that means a substandard service with more and more breakdowns and disruption.
The SNP MP Angus MacNeil who represents the Western Isles has even suggested that it is time to look at Poland or other shipbuilding nations to provide the vessels that are needed by the communities he serves. The fact that such a prominent SNP figure is suggesting that these ferries may have to be built outside Scotland just demonstrates how serious this issue has become.
It really would be a supreme irony if an SNP government in Scotland were left in a position where they had to off-shore the construction of new ferries to shipyards elsewhere in Europe, or in the Far East, due to the inability of their government-owned yard here to fulfil orders.
And it would be even more ironic if the future of Scottish shipbuilding was being secured thanks to the spending of a UK Conservative government, able to take decisions and deliver investment in a manner in which SNP ministers could only dream of.
Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife