‘Transport is the biggest issue in the Western Isles’: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar election profile

"It's a critical part of the decision for people over whether to stay, it's a critical part for us tackling demographics and for businesses to survive.”

For businessman and former Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) leader Angus Campbell and many others in the Outer Hebrides, transport plays such a critical role in their lives it is likely to be the dominant issue in next month’s local elections.

Islanders are dependent on their links to the mainland – predominantly ferries – for pretty much everything, while these also provide a gateway for the hordes of visitors beguiled by some of Scotland’s most dramatic coastal landscapes, and who in turn are crucial to the economy.

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‘High on the agenda’

Eilean Siar, the only Scottish council area with a Gaelic name only, comes in second in the list. The council area that covers the Western Isles has an average total bill of £1754.80, broken down into £1281.86 for electricity and £472.94 for gas.

Mr Campbell, who runs two shops and a filling station, said: "If the election is going to reflect the concerns of the community, transport is going to be very high up on the agenda.

"I'd be surprised if it wasn't the one that attracts the most attention.”

The problems plaguing CalMac, the ferry operator that serves the islands, have been well aired – an ageing fleet, hampered by two major new vessels now likely to be completed five years late, and a common view that mechanical problems are becoming more frequent.

One of the new ferries is destined for the Skye-North Uist-Harris triangle.

Boundary changes will reduce the council's seats in the May election to 29. Picture: Mark Hall

When sailings are cancelled, virtually nothing and no-one can get on or off the islands, sometimes for days at a time.

Mr Campbell, who also chairs CalMac’s community board, said while the council has no power over the Scottish Government-owned ferry company, it has a potentially important influence.

He said: "The council isn't directly involved in all of the issues over ferries, but certainly it has a strong role to play in terms of promoting the needs of the islands and making representations.

"If I saw a leaflet coming through my door from a prospective councillor that didn't have that, I'd be very, very disappointed.

Angus Campbell at Sandwick Bay in Stornoway

"It should also be working alongside the other council areas that are affected by the failure of the ferries to make it have a stronger voice, a joint voice, to say we are long overdue a change in how ferries are dealt with."

Depopulation

Mr Campbell said ferry policy “affects the whole future of the Western Isles”.

The string of 119 named islands along a 130-mile chain is home to just 26,500 people.

Western Isles Council is dominated by non-party councillors. Picture: Mark Hall

That population is shrinking faster than anywhere else in UK apart from Inverclyde, falling by 4 per cent in the decade to 2020.

However, visitor numbers appear to be increasing, going by passenger numbers on its main CalMac route between Ullapool and Stornoway, which surged from 220,000 in 2009 to 300,000 ten years later.

But Mr Campbell said: "Because of the ferries, it's hard to get labour, it's hard to get companies to come here – the costs are 40-50 per cent higher.

"If these things aren’t solved, trying to give people some incentive to stay is not going to work if you can't sort the housing and the jobs market.”

The council, dominated by independents, will be slimmed down in May from 31 to 29 members by boundary changes.

For the first time in its history, none of the current councillors are women and only seven stood in 2017, which the Elect Her lobby group wants to see changed.

Outer Hebrides Tourism chief executive Sarah MacLean

Chief executive Hannah Stevens said: “We are hopeful we will see an increase in the number of female candidates on the ballot paper in the Western Isles this year, but the barriers to women’s participation are systemic.

‘The only big topic in town’

“Our collaboration with the Comhairle has been really positive and I see genuine willing from them to do this work.”

While not a councillor, Lewis-based Sarah MacLean, the new chief executive of Outer Hebrides Tourism, is among women lobbying for transport improvements.

She said: "The ferries discussion is the big one that's dominating at the moment and will undoubtedly have a bearing on the council elections.

"It is the only big topic in town when it comes to any discussion of tourism or economic development, and yet it's one the islands feel relatively powerless on.

"It will definitely be something the campaigning council candidates are going to be met with again and again.

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"Nearly all my life I've been reliant on the ferry network and I don't think it's ever been such an acute as it is now.

"I think it's a lot to do with the economy we live in – visitor traffic has increased a great deal over recent years.

"There seems to be an increasing prevalence of CalMac becoming extremely dependent on having to rob Peter to pay Paul to keep the network going when one vessel goes down."

‘Keep the pressure on’

Among those at the sharp end are Barra fish processors like Barratlantic, which can pay a heavy price for a last-minute cancelled sailing.

Managing director Donald MacLean said: "Transport is the biggest issue in the Western Isles.

"Our highway is the sea and our public transport is the ferries.

"Over the last year we have lost customers.

"If I can't supply it, someone else will.

"I have contracts, I have to honour them – if I don't, I lose them.”

Mr MacLean urged incoming councillors to step up lobbying those he said were responsible for CalMac’s “outdated and past their sell-by date” ferries.

He said: "Our council has been engaged with [Scottish Government ferry owning firm] Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited and Transport Scotland for the last two years, but they're not listening.

"They have to keep the pressure on.”

‘Long-term strategy’

CalMac managing director Robbie Drummond said: “We are extremely sorry about the impact that disruption is having on our customers and communities.

“Unexpected technical faults and delays to scheduled annual maintenance work have also caused issues.

“A long-term strategy to replace vessels and improve port infrastructure would improve the capacity we can offer and increase resilience, but this will take time."

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