Watchdog warns ferry budget difficulties lie ahead

Humza Yousaf. Picture: Contributed
Humza Yousaf. Picture: Contributed
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Scotland’s transport agency could find it “challenging” to provide ferry services that meet users needs within its budget in future years, despite spending having more than doubled in the last decade, public spending watchdogs have warned.

Transport Scotland spending on ferries rose by 115 per cent between 2007-8 and 2016-17, going from £97.3 
million to £209.7m – with subsidies to operators doubling to £168.7m over the period. 
While the agency has made “significant progress” as part of plans to improve services, Audit Scotland said its ten-year plan was focused on the Clyde and Hebrides, adding that Transport Scotland has “no Scotland-wide, long-term strategy”.

It added that the condition of about half the harbours used by operators was unknown, and said: “This means the full extent of Transport Scotland’s future spending requirements on services and assets is not known.

“In the context of limited public finances, Transport Scotland will find it challenging to continue to provide ferry services that meet the needs of users within its allocated budget.”

Scotland has an estimated 
66 scheduled ferry routes linking up islands and the mainland, with Transport Scotland providing subsidies to almost half – 32 – of these water-borne services.

But Audit Scotland was critical of the agency’s handling of the tendering for the new Clyde and Hebrides ferry services contract, saying it used a new procurement method and the two bidders were “not clear what was expected of them”, submitting more than 800 queries over the course of the process.

The introduction of the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) has increased traffic on the Clyde and Hebrides services, with 2016 – the first year in which RET was applied across 
the whole area – seeing growth in passengers of 9 per cent 
and 16 per cent more car journeys.

Audit Scotland said that it was too early to assess the full impact of the roll-out of the scheme, which links ferry fares to the cost of travelling an equivalent distance on land, to services in the Clyde and Hebrides area.

Transport minister Humza Yousaf said more than £1 billion had been invested in ferry services since 2007, which had brought the introduction of new routes, the procurement of new vessels and the roll-out of cheaper fares.