Western Ferries and the replacement linkspans that weren't

In 2005 Western Ferries made planning applications for replacement linkspans for their existing linkspans at Hunters Quay and McInroys Point, the applications were made to Argyll and Bute Council and Inverclyde Council respectively.

Because the applications were billed simply as "replacement linkspans" they both limited: (a) what could be said and objected to by those potentially adversely affected by the development; (b) what could be said about implications for traffic management; (c) what could be said about implications for local plans and local developments such as for transport and other developments at Dunoon town centre and the planned Gourock Transport Interchange. Indeed, both councils in 2005 initially imposed restrictions on the use of linkspans in the respective locations consistent with these being treated as effectively replacement linkspans for normal operational purposes.

If (as was submitted in application and publicised by the councils), the new linkspans were simply like-for-like replacements, then the only obvious significant implications on any counts were indeed temporary and largely limited to the construction phase.

However, Western's actual plans for Hunters Quay and McInroys Point now are that in both locations the old linkspan should effectively be treated as an operational linkspan and be able to be used interchangeably on the same working day with the new linkspan as a matter of course - subject to the constraint in each case that the linkspans be not used simultaneously (something that Western has made clear that they would not do anyway for safety and manpower reasons).

Why is this important? Just as if you were to convert a single track road to a double track road, so this switch from single linkspans to dual linkspans has fundamental implications for businesses, residents, traffic management, and local plans and local developments. But not only were these implications not made transparent when the linkspans were being built, for whatever reasons Argyll and Bute Council planners are refusing now to recognize or accept any concerns on any of these counts and are advising the council (and with delegated powers potentially making the relevant planning decisions) on that basis, and quite contrary (inexplicably) to the arguments they made on traffic management issues in the original application in 2005 .

As long as Western Ferries is generally limited to one linkspan during the working day, there is a natural limit to the amount of traffic they can carry. The limit is not just the fact that there is only room for one vessel at the linkspan, but the fact that the next incoming vessel has to wait a safe distance offshore so as not to impede or endanger the departure of the vessel presently at the linkspan. Then when the berthed vessel departs, there will be a further delay with the linkspan remaining out of use until the next vessel can berth.

Having dual operational linkspans effectively eliminates this offshore waiting time because the linkspans can be used interchangeably and in alternating fashion - as soon as vessel A is leaving linkspan A, vessel B can be docking at linkspan B, and so on. No one linkspan would be in continuous use, but if it is wished, and if Western's new planning application is permitted, then using the linkspans interchangeably and in alternating fashion means they could have virtually continuous and uninterrupted linkspan operation due to the combined effect of the two linkspans. Western Ferries does not want, and does not need, to use the linkspans simultaneously to achieve this outcome. The effect would be a substantial increase in the traffic that Western could channel through Hunters Quay and McInroys Point.

The actual increase in the traffic capacity if this application is permitted would be a relatively straightforward matter to work out. Take sixty, and divide that by the number of minutes that a single linkspan would be in use for a fully loaded ferry. The answer gives a first top-end approximation to the number of ferries that could now discharge every hour at either of the two terminals with twin-track alternating linkspans. Can anyone now honestly say this raises no implications or issues for planning?

Western Ferries already have all the planning permission they need for this at McInroys Point, indeed they subsequently got the planning permission they needed in 2005, about two years before the new Hunters Quay linkspan was finished. All they need now to have twin-track fully operational linkspans on both sides of the Clyde is for Argyll and Bute to agree the same (weakened) planning conditions on their use that Inverclyde conceded in 2005. That is what Western are seeking to achieve with their current revised planning application.

The only economic, technical and commercial arguments for Western to have such substantial capacity and twin-track operational linkspans would be predicated on their expecting or planning to be sole operator of vehicle-carrying ferries Gourock-Dunoon in the near future, and if that does not raise widespread public policy issues on a number of economic, social, traffic, planning and developmental grounds, then it is difficult to see what would.

The real disgrace here is the failure by responsible officials to communicate what are clear and serious concerns to councilors and the public as to the implications and effects of all this for businesses, residents, road traffic management, local plans, and especially the potential threat to major local developments such as those at Dunoon Pier/Breakwater, other Dunoon town centre developments, and the council's own promotion of the Dunoon-Gourock town centre to town centre ferry link .

The decision earlier this year by the council's Local Area Committee to turn down Western's planning application in this context was exactly the right decision, even given the councilors were not given all the relevant information here by the council's planners. Western has submitted a revised application which would give them what they were seeking with the earlier rejected application. Given that the new application is essentially the same in substance and intention as the old and rejected application, and given that there has been no material change in circumstances in the few weeks that have passed, there should be no alternative but to turn down this application also.

And irrespective of whether or not the new application is turned down, there should be a serious inquiry into what has been going on here at council level, and if the council cannot demonstrate that it can scrutinise its own internal affairs credibly with its own inquiry, then this should be done by an independent outside body.

Details and sources

As the planning application in 2005 (June 27th) for Western Ferries "replacement linkspan" at Hunters Quay states, "the application form and the notification forms indicated a "replacement" linkspan" (page 36). Condition 12 which was imposed on the application reads: 'At no time shall the new link span and the existing link span (as indicated on the approved plans) be used simultaneously or on the same operational day for embarking/disembarking of vehicles and/or foot passengers. The existing link span shall not be used for the embarking/disembarking of paying vehicles and passengers except in the sole instance of any mechanical failure of the new link span. Reason: in the interests of traffic management and to prevent congestion in the immediate area and on the public highway" (page 31)

The Inverclyde Council Planning Register for 2005 also carries details of two planning applications made by Western Ferries that year. For the week ending 18th February 2005, Western Ferries planning application for a "replacement linkspan" at McInroys Point was "granted conditionally" 9th March 2005. And what were the conditions? They are referred to in the planning application for the "replacement linkspan" at Hunters Quay that Western was making about the same time: it states that "Inverclyde council has confirmed ... that planning permission for the formation of a replacement linkspan at McInroys Point was granted 9th March 2005 subject to two conditions ...Condition 2 stipulates that the "existing linkspan be removed from the application site once the replacement hereby permitted is completed and operational". The document immediately adds: "At the time of writing (27/06/05) no planning application to vary or remove this condition has been submitted to Inverclyde Council"

That last statement is worth noting. Why should officials in Argyll and Bute Council on the 27th June 2005 feel the need to make a statement about a planning application that has not happened - especially when exactly such an application was almost immediately made by Western and approved conditionally by Inverclyde Council 9th September 2005?

If I were to make a statement such as "at the time of writing no-one has dumped builders' rubble in West Bay" and if just a short time later someone dumped builders' rubble in West Bay, I could expect the police to be asking me searching questions as to whether I had prior knowledge that such an event was likely to happen.

It is reasonable to ask if there was knowledge or expectation on the part of planning officials in Argyll and Bute Council at the time of the original "replacement linkspan" application in 2005 as to whether Western was going to make an application to vary the planning permission on the Inverclyde side, because that application would only make sense if they were to make a subsequent application to replicate the same conditions at Hunters Quay - which is exactly what Western are doing now.

What the new planning permission in the Inverclyde Planning Register for 2005 records is that the removal of Condition 2 is "granted conditionally". And what are the new conditions?

"Removal of Condition 2 of Planning Permission IC/05/039: McInroy's Point Ferry Terminal, Cloch Road, Gourock (IC/05/279) Decided: that planning permission be granted subject to the following conditions:... (2) that the two linkspan piers must not be used for the loading and unloading of traffic simultaneously, to contain traffic loadings at the current level to ensure no substantial increase in the operation of the site to the detriment of road safety; Inverclyde Council Planning and Traffic Management Committee 7th September 2005

It is worth noting that the planners in Inverclyde, for whatever reason, failed to recognise or communicate to councilors and the public that this condition prohibiting simultaneous use would fail completely in ensuring its stated objective "to contain traffic loadings at the current level", since of course in practice it freed Western to increase traffic loadings by using twin track linkspans in the interchangeable and alternating fashion detailed above. The only remaining infrastructure constraint on this happening now has been not on the Inverclyde side but at Hunters Quay with Condition 12. Western has made it clear it wants to use its own linkspans and so it cannot increase loadings at Mcinroys Point beyond what is possible at Hunters Quay

Westerns planning application for Hunters Quay linkspans June 23rd 2009 was rejected. Western have now resubmitted a planning application which basically echoes the condition imposed on the McInroys Point operation and reads "Variation of Condition 12 of application 05/00220/DET to read; 'At no time shall vehicles and passengers embark or disembark from both linkspans at the same time'". (Application ref 09/01182/PP). If this is passed, then that creates the outcome of twin track operational linkspans on both sides of the Clyde described above.

As far as that remaining condition prohibiting simultaneous use of linkspans is concerned, the MD of Western Ferries has stated publicly: "We don't want to use and have never had to use both linkspans simultaneously .... To do so would be dangerous and asking for trouble". Dunoon Observer, Friday 29th May 2009 page 2. Is short, any prohibition on simultaneous use of linkspans is meaningless, misleading, and redundant because the company itself had made clear prior to the rejected application that it would never do this anyway on safety grounds.

Therefore the present application is effectively the same in intent, purpose and potential effect as the June 23rd application which was rejected by Argyll and Bute Councilors. For that reason, as stated above, given that the new application is essentially the same in substance and intention as the old and rejected application, and given that there has been no material change in circumstances in the few weeks that have passed, there should be no alternative but to reject this application also, on procedural grounds as well as the grounds of substance detailed above.

21st August 2009