Brian Wilson: CalMac chaos shows Scotland's centralising obsession

Weather-wise, conditions are calm on the west coast. In other respects, there are huge squalls which relate to the functioning of Caledonian MacBrayne. Has anyone in Edinburgh noticed?

Some 15 out of 28 Calmac routes have been disrupted and the problems are set to continue for weeks (Picture: John Devlin)

The CalMac web-site indicates “disruption” on 15 out of 28 routes. You expect that when winter gales are howling, but if it happens for reasons unrelated to weather when the tourist season is getting into its stride, then it is time for distress signals.

Rather forlornly, CalMac say they hope to run a full service by early June. Nobody is confident and it is not entirely CalMac’s fault. They don’t have enough vessels. The fleet is ageing and a couple of new ones which might bring relief are far behind schedule (and above budget). For those who support the concept of a publicly owned ferry company, it is not a pretty seascape.

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However, the wider point extends beyond ferry services. For people living in the islands, a striking factor is invariably the remoteness of decision-taking that affects their lives. Scotland is a small country but, paradoxically (or maybe not), devolution has made it a more centralised one.

Local control of anything seems anathema. The boards and quangos which determine the fates of communities operate at safe distance from the outcomes of their labours. The idea of giving responsibility to people directly affected by how public money is spent and services provided remains unwelcome.

Scottish Government ministers have adopted a mantra that “these are operational matters for CalMac” which is (a) not entirely true and (b) certainly not what they say when there is a glimmer of good news to report. If you have a state-owned company, the buck stops with the state. Ahoy there, Mr Yousaf!

It is absurd to pretend that CalMac are masters in their own house. Their operations are dependent upon subsidy provided by the Scottish Government. Due to a ludicrous separation of powers, supposedly to satisfy EU rules, they are no longer responsible for procuring the infrastructure on which services depend.

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Widespread CalMac disruption to last until end of May

That rests with a quango called Caledonian Marine Assets Limited (CMAL) which owns 32 ferries and most of the terminals. Many of CalMac’s current problems derive from the dysfunctionality of this arrangement. Synchronising construction of ferries and the design of terminals seems to be beyond the system’s capabilities.

It is surely shameful that neither the CMAL nor CalMac boards contain anyone who lives in a community directly affected by their actions. These are anonymous entities, stuffed with the usual quango “trusties”, serving the interests of those who appoint them. Natives would be dangerous!

Another farce is unfolding on the Ardrossan to Brodick route. The ferry has been built to specifications which have proved unsuited to the mainland terminal due to inadequate consultation between CMAL and CalMac. It is now necessary to modify the design for Ardrossan. How long will it be before new ferry (which is far behind schedule anyway) is ready for redesigned terminal? Will there be any calling to account for the dysfunctionality or the huge additional costs – far less public inconvenience - involved?

When a new ferry was introduced between Stornoway and Ullapool, every local voice pleaded for a two-vessel solution, to meet growing demand and also safeguard against risk – nay, certainty – of breakdowns during the lifespan of a ship. Every local voice was duly ignored.

Instead, an opaque version of private-finance initiative (PFI) was applied for the first time to a vessel sailing under CalMac colours. The ‘Loch Seaforth’ is owned by Lloyd’s Bank, leased to CMAL and sub-leased to CalMac, who were allowed no part in her design. As the Western Isles Council pointed out this week, the result is “a less frequent service than the public had before”.

Efforts to uncover the terms of this deal have been blocked on grounds of “commercial confidentiality”. Already, the vessel is heavily over-subscribed for much of the year and questions of liability in the event of something going wrong remain unanswered, along with those about the lifetime cost of procuring a ferry in this way. Is there absolutely no public right to know?

The two ferries which are heavily behind schedule are being built by the Ferguson yard at Port Glasgow. The deal through which the Monaco-based cheerleader for independence, Jim McColl, took over the yard in 2014 has been followed by a flow of CalMac work. The speed with which the previously impossible became possible raised some eyebrows.

Criticism was muted by the fact that everyone wanted shipbuilding to survive on the Lower Clyde. Unfortunately, questions about the yard’s capabilities were kicked into touch and the islands currently awaiting long overdue ferries are paying the price. Again, there is a lack of transparency about causes, costs and implications.

The Scottish Government can point to higher subsidy and lower fares, contributing to increased demand. That, however, is of limited benefit if the infrastructure does not exist to support it. Local input would undoubtedly pre-empt many of the blunders which create these difficulties while communities have a right to know exactly what is going on, rather than being fobbed off with long-distance PR spin.

In one welcome development, a new CalMac Advisory Board, made up of people who actually live on islands, has hit out at the “significant economic damage and detrimental impacts on family life” being caused by the current chaos. It is inconceivable that the quango boards would speak out in this way, on islanders’ behalf.

One of the sterile features of Scottish politics is a complete lack of interest in learning from other countries which get things right. How does Norway run its ferry services? What models of public sector job dispersal could be adopted? How could we set about empowering communities rather than constantly centralising and cutting at local levels?

The CalMac chaos is a metaphor for these wider issues. Whether island or mainland, rural or urban, the specific needs of communities need to be treated with far more sensitivity and respect. The closer decision-making takes place to those directly affected, the more likely it is that positive outcomes will be achieved. CalMac serves islands and it would make sense to have islanders at the helm.