Gourock-Dunoon Endgame

Alan Reid MP has passed to me a letter to him dated September 2009 from Stewart Stevenson, Scottish Minister for Transport. The crucial part reads:

"The Scottish Government cannot legally require any new operator of the Gourock-Dunoon ferry service to use particular existing vessels. It would therefore not make economic sense for ministers to initiate the procurement of new vessels for this service in advance of the tendering process, since any new operator may not wish to use them"

There is no difference in EC law between the Bute and Cowal runs, even with the presence of Western Ferries nearby. The statement by Stewart Stevenson in his leter to Alan Reid about "cannot legally require" use of particular vessels is simply wrong. In the Clyde and Hebrides Lifeline Ferry Services Specification it said

"The receipt of subsidy is contingent upon the successful tenderer being bound to lease its vessels from VesCo for the duration of the contract." (section 3.4.2).

Vesco is the government's state owned vessel owning company. If this holds for the Bute public service routes, and all the other CalMac public service routes, there is no reason why it does not hold for the Cowal public service route.

If anyone does come forward at all, they will come forward with vessels that are obsolete, unsuitable and/or surplus to requirements elsewhere - just as the Ali Cat was. No-one is going to build new vessels for a 6-year one-off contract - even if there was time to do so.

Just imagine what kind of vessels, if any, Bute would have got for a 6-year "bring your own vessels" contract

So why did the Minister make this statement the way he did, through a letter to an MP? At face value it is disgraceful and barely explciable that such an important issue for Cowal should be made in this casual and offhand fashion in a letter to an MP rather than the Minister facing the music directly and making a direct and full statement and explanation to those whose lives and livelihoods are going to be so fundamentally affected by this.

There two possible theories, the inept and the cynical. The inept is self-evident, the cynical is that the Minister knows that the Commission in their imminent decision will give an opinion that binding bidders to take the vessels that VesCo offers for the other CalMac routes is illegal. If that was the case the Government would take the hit on the Gourock-Dunoon issue for a few days/weeks and then say triumphantly, "see, told you so!" when the Commission Decision was announced. It would be designed to throw dependent communities off-balance in their protests.

If that is the game that is being played, then it would fail. It is not legally binding obligations that matter for these routes, it is availability of vessels. If the appropriate vessels for this route were available they would be used, and at much lower cost to the public purse than alternatives. The Deloitte Touche report on these ferries showed conclusively that the best economic solution was two modern vehicle-carrying ferries for this route, and would just about eliminate subsidy and recoup capital costs in a few years. The "not make economic sense" statement in the Minister's letter is itself nonsense

If there is a choice between the inept and the cynical theories here, I would plump for the inept to still give some moral credit to the Minister.

The Minister is also setting up matters to wrongly place the blame for this on the European Commission in the preamble in the letter which reads "the way forward for the Gourock-Dunoon ferry service is dependent on the outcome of the European Commission investigation into public support for ferry services in Scotland". This should be seen for the red herring it is. The Scottish Government has consistently failed to say what proposals they put forward to the Commission for the route, or indeed if they put forward any coherent proposals at all. So the presumption, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, has to be they chose not to make a proper economic and legal case for the two vehicle-carrying vessel solution.

This is likely to hand Western Ferries an unregulated monopoly over vehicle carrying on this strategically important route by default. The Forth Estuary may carry much more traffic than the Clyde Estuary, but in transport, public service, and local economic development terms this is much like handing over total control of the Forth Road Bridge to Stagecoach and just walking away.

Neil Kay 15th September 2009