SNP accused by Scottish Conservatives of ‘abject failure to maintain reliable ferry network’

Transport minister Jenny Gilruth has described it as "hugely important" to have a ferry service "fit for island communities" after the Scottish Government was accused of an "abject failure to maintain a reliable network".

Ms Gilruth, who was appointed two weeks ago, told MSPs: “It’s so important that we get our ferry services right.”

She was responding to Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Donald Cameron, who criticised the SNP’s record over state-owned operator CalMac since it was elected in 2007.

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Mr Cameron said: “Will she apologise for the SNP’s abject failure, over the past 15 years, to maintain a reliable ferry network for Scotland’s island communities?”

MV Hebrides at Tarbert in HarrisMV Hebrides at Tarbert in Harris
MV Hebrides at Tarbert in Harris

He also referred to a "scathing” statement issued on Thursday by Western Isles Council, which he said “lamented decades of under investment in ferries and called for urgent action”.

The statement said the islands were at “crisis point” due to “widespread chaos” to ferry services across the Hebrides caused by late-running vessel maintenance and the breakdown of the 22-year-old MV Hebrides.

In the latest of a series of problems to beset CalMac’s ageing fleet, an engine problem on the ferry has forced the cancellation of sailings between Uig in Skye, Tarbert in Harris and Lochmaddy in North Uist until at least Saturday.

The minister agreed to Mr Cameron’s call for her to meet the council.

She said: “I’m more than happy to do that. It is hugely important that we have a ferry service fit for our island communities.”

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Ms Gilruth said at least £580 million would be spent over the next four years on vessels and ports, but the council said the plans were insufficient.

She said: “We have been working with partners to progress our fleet replacement programme.

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"Last year, we announced the decision to extend the Islay vessel procurement that is being undertaken by Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd to a second vessel, and bids from shipyards are now being evaluated.

"Our recent investment in the purchase of the MV Loch Frisa [from Norway] and vessel cascades will bring benefits across the network to Mull, Skye and the Outer Hebrides.

“Further projects – the small vessel replacement programme, new vessels for Dunoon and Kilcreggan, further major vessel replacements for Mull and South Uist, and replacement freight ships for Orkney and Shetland – are under way.”

However, the council called for the Islay ferries order to be increased to at least four.

It also urged the Scottish Government to buy the surplus Pentland Ferries vessel MV Pentalina “which could enter service immediately to either Arran or Mull and allow redeployment of another ferry to shore up the delivery of services across the network”.

The council said: “This action would go a long way to re-setting the decades of under investment in ferries and give island communities genuine confidence that Government will support their economic recovery from the most challenging period in living memory.”

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “The MV Pentalina was considered for a possible time charter in 2021, although it was withdrawn from availability by its owner before the formal agreement was signed. Whilst we would not purchase the vessel, we remain open to exploring the charter option further should this be reconsidered by the vessel’s owner.”

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