Report and Editorial Comment on Public Meeting on Gourock-Dunoon Ferries Friday 8th December in Dunoon Observer Friday 15th December 2006

Below are electronic versions of (1) most of the first two pages of the Dunoon Observer 15th December 2006 (2) Editorial comment in the same issue .

No boats - no votes!

A full house of politicians got the message from the people of Dunoon on Friday night - "enough is enough - get our ferry service sorted out!"
A packed Queen's Hall - estimated to be around 300 people - was a clear indication that patience was running out over the issue, as a public meeting called by Dunoon Community Council gave the elected representatives the opportunity to hear at first hand the views of local electors.
And a quote which will be remembered for some time came from Ronnie Smith as he wound up the meeting with a stark message to the top table:
"No boats - no votes!"
Mr Smith stepped into the breach as chairman at short notice, but he ran the meeting in an inspired fashion. He is secretary of Dunoon Community Council, and is also a member of the Pier Pressure Group, along with Professor Neil Kay and Captain Sandy Ferguson. The group has been fighting the corner for the retention of two ferry services for some time, and has been instrumental in keeping the issue alive and in the public eye.
Mr Smith began by outlining the sequence of events to date, a catalogue of mismanagement, incompetence, and indecision over a quarter of a century which had created continuing uncertainty over the lifeline Dunoon-Gourock route, a situation which prevailed until the present day.
He explained that the purpose of the meeting was to seek a way ahead, and warned that he would not allow it to be used as a political platform.
The platform party consisted of Jamie McGrigor, Conservative list MSP. Mary Galbraith, Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, George Lyon, MSP for Argyll and Bute and a Liberal Democrat, Councillor Brian Chennell, chairman of Bute and Cowal Area Committee, Jim Mather, SNP list MSP, Alan Reid, Liberal Democrat MP, and Alyn Smith, SNP, MEP.
The members of the platform party were asked to give their view on the situation. George Lyon said local people had to be consulted, but pointed out that Western Ferries had 85 percent of vehicle business. It would be watching, and would certainly complain to the EU if its position was threatened, and rightly so. Jim Mather observer that the turnout said it all in terms of popular feeling. The £2.5m subsidy paid to Calmac was effectively a subsidy to Western Ferries because the frequency restriction on the Calmac route made it an unattractive proposition for vehicle drivers. He had talked to bidders who felt the dice were loaded.
He expressed disappointed at the non-attendance of both Calmac and Western Ferries, and felt that this was a discourtesy.
For Labour, Mary Galbraith pointed out that her own background was Kintyre, so she had an understanding of the situation faced by the people of Cowal. There was a need for clarity on hte Calmac route, and it needed to be done quickly,
Jamie McGrigor said he was not surprised people were angry, but he then raised hackles when he asked what would happen if there were no Western Ferries; "It would be extremely dangerous," he said, "if we went back to a monopoly, "we don't want to risk putting the private operator out of business."
This statement engendered mutterings from hall which were certainly not supportive. Ronnie Smith interjected by suggesting that an extended service by Calmac, or any other operator into Dunoon Pier was unlikely to put Western Ferries out of business.
He said: "Western Ferries' profitability is at the level most Scottish companies would kill to achieve. It is very firmly established."
Cllr Brian Chennell said that while the history was important they had to look forward, commenting: "The ferry service is too important to be a political football.
"Our position is clear - we want a centre to centre vehicle and passenger service."
He posed the question: How can we promote Dunoon as the Gateway to the National Park if we don't have cars coming into it? That's ridiculous."
Alan Reid suggested that a passenger-only option might be better than what existed at the moment, and that the £2.5m currently expended on subsidy could perhaps be better spent on two high-speed passenger ferries to give a frequent service.
"It's important that we get your views on this," he said.
It was hard not to suspect that this was precisely the opportunity that Ronnie Smith was waiting for; he immediately asked the public for those supporting such a concept to raise their hands.
There was a unanimous lack of support from the floor for the proposition. Not a single hand came up.
MEP Alyn Smith said the difficulty arose from the fact that there were a number of layers of UK government which were simply not coming together.
"The rules being applied just don't match the Scottish reality," he said.
He went on to explain that Europe stretched from the Arctic circle to Cyprus, and that EU law was designed to be interpreted to suit particular requirements. However, under the terms of the Scotland Act, which created the devolved government, the interpretation taken was the harshest possible.
The situation was made worse because access to the European Court of Justice was through the Secretary of State for Scotland, not the Scottish Executive.
"Any normal country would interpret what fits their reality best," he said, "we take the most literal interpretation, and that's the least advantageous."
Professor Neil Kay was called upon to speak from the floor. Professor Kay has been one of the most outspoken critics of the way the ferry issue has been handled, and was recently accused by Alan Reid of being a member of 'the SNP letter-writing squad' in the pages of the Dunoon Observer.
He opened his presentation by pointing out that he had been a member of a political party, and had in fact acted as constituency secretary during his membership. That party was the Liberal Party - a disclosure which brought forth considerable laughter from the audience, but was received rather less warmly by the two party representatives on the platform.
Professor Kay reinforced Mr Smith's views on what had transpired in Europe. He said that putting subsidised passenger-only vessels on the route made little sense - unrestricted passenger/vehicle carriers would generate a great deal more revenue.
Turning to Europe, he said: "The answer you get depends upon the question you ask. The commission doesn't determine strategy - they are the referees."
"We were told that if the tender process didn't work there were other options on the table; the tender process should have been completed a year ago, so it's reasonable to assume since it's a year late the alternatives are ready.
"Where are they?
"Why not build and lease the ships? there's nothing to stop you under EU rules from doing that."
George Lyon said that the options open were a passenger only service; under pressure to explain what else was being considered he said that another was an unrestricted vehicle/passenger service.
However, Cllr Chennell said that this was not quite his understanding of the situation; He had also attended the meeting with Tavish Scott, and understood the position to be that the route could have an increased passenger-only service or the status quo; the option of an unrestricted vehicle/passenger service had not been discussed.
He added "How on earth are we supposed to decide on options if we don't know what they are?"
Cllr Dick Walsh said that the meeting gave him an opportunity to express his personal frustration, and his views echoed both Alyn Smith and Professor Kay.
"This has dragged on since before devolution," he said.
He remembered plans to consult on the future of the route being raised by a Scottish Office minister as far back as 1996. There had been meetings in Westminster, Brussels and Edinburgh and things were no further forward.
"Having supported our bid for cash to create a breakwater and ferry linkspan, they have created so much uncertainty as to its future use with the potential for large sums of public cash to be wasted if the issue is not appropriately resolved."
Cllr Bruce Marshall said that his view would not be popular when he suggested that Western Ferries had provided an excellent service for 30 years and was capable of coping with vehicle traffic on its own.
He was right; his comments attracted a storm of disapproval from the body of the hall.
Captain Sandy Ferguson said that he had been working for Western Ferries as a ship's master when they operated the Islay route."They got a lucrative offer from Mexico for the Isle of Jura, which was operating the run at the time, and they sold her and left the people of Islay in the lurch.
"Don't pretend they're doing it for the community- they're doing it for the money - that's why they're here and not on Islay."
The meeting concluded with closing remarks from the platform party. All of them said that the message from the floor - the desire for an unrestricted vehicle/passenger service between Gourock and Dunoon town centre. Both Alan Reid and George Lyon gave a commitment to work closely with Alyn Smith in an attempt to come up with a solution.
Western Ferries' Managing Director Gordon Ross said on Monday that he hadn't attended the meeting because he hadn't been invited.
"That's perfectly true," said Ronnie Smith. "In the past Calmac have always been invited to meetings of this sort and have always declined, and in fairness - given the number of people already on the platform, we decided to invite neither. However on previous occasions, latterly when Ken Cadenhead was managing director, he came as a member of the public and spoke from the body of the hall, and there was nothing to stop Mr Ross doing the same."
In a joint letter to this week's Safety Valve Alan Reid and George Lyon said that they would work with Argyll and Bute Council and Scotland's representatives in the European Parliament to achieve the best service that European rules will allow.
"We have told Transport Minister Tavish Scott the views of the local community. We have urged him and Argyll and Bute Council to go back to Brussels and secure a far better deal than the restricted service that former Transport Minister Lewis Macdonald and local Councillors Walsh and Macaskill negotiated with the Commission in 2003."

Box Insert: We have something in common with Edinburgh - we both have a Scott Monument - but ours is the linkspan - a monument to Tavish Scott - Ronnie Smith

Editorial Comment

The organisers of last Friday's meeting have triggered something which may have far-reaching consequences for Cowal.
They brought together members of the public in large numbers with a simple message: "No more excuses, no more time wasting, get on with it and deliver….."
Or as Ronnie Smith so succinctly put it: "No boats, no votes!"
As a slogan to drive a campaign it might not be up there with 'Remember the Alamo', but it's brutal in its message.
The politicians have gone back to their respective places of government with a clear remit. The excuses that have been trotted out in the past won't wash any more, the plaintive howls that 'we're doing our best but the EU keeps blocking us' comprehensively rubbished by the arguments of Professor Kay and Alyn Smith, who brought clarity and logic where previously there had been fog and gobbledegook.
Ronnie Smith's role in Friday night's proceedings cannot be understated. He ran the meeting like a maestro conducting an orchestra, and it truly was his finest hour. By seizing the opportunity at a critical stage of the proceedings to achieve a nil vote for a passenger-only service he concentrated the minds of the top table and effectively put an end to any illusions that a passenger ferry was a vote winner.
Councillors Chennell and Walsh displayed sound judgement and argued the case well.
But let's not be deluded into thinking that the fight is over.
It hasn't even begun.
We've been told that we'll be 'fully consulted'.
Don't be fooled - this is a device commonly used by employers shutting down factories who have to abide by a statutory consultation mechanism.
The consultation usually takes the form of: "You're sacked. What do you think about that?"
We have been consulted. After Friday they know what we want.
An end to the nonsense, the excuses the handwringing; no more "it wisnae me it wis the Tories/the SNP/The EU/the Sandbank WRI/The Clyde Cottage Nursery" (cross out where applicable)
Neither Alan Reid nor George Lyon came out of the exercise covered in glory. It's sad, therefore, that in a letter to the Observer this week they should continue to blame others, in this case not the previous transport minister but the one before him (who happens to have been the last Labour holder of the post) and Argyll and Bute Councillors for the current situation.
We are long past this petulant, point scoring nonsense.
Alyn Smith and Professor Neil Kay have shown the way ahead, and that this is, as the Americans say, a 'can do' situation.
So do it.