Ferry tendering fiasco
Herald EDITORIAL COMMENT February 16 2007
It has been assumed by some that the desire of Scottish ministers to present these services as a special case, exempt from tendering, was being frustrated by Scottish Office and subsequently Scottish Executive civil servants whose real agenda was the privatisation and break-up of the state-owned provider Caledonian MacBrayne. To toe the European line, CalMac has been forced to spend an estimated £20m restructuring and tendering for 25 ferry routes, only to end up the sole bidders. In the case of the Gourock-Dunoon route currently operated by CalMac, there have been no tenders at all. Apart from the cost to the public purse, this saga has given Scotland's island communities more than six years of worry and uncertainty. Shambles? Fiasco? Neither is too strong a term.
Serving Scotland's fragile scattered islands on the storm-lashed north-west fringe of Europe was never going to generate big profits. The template that governs little ferries that potter around the Mediterranean simply does not fit. It takes sturdy vessels built to last for 30 years and lots of skill and experience to weather the perils of the Minch and the Pentland Firth. Given a large public subsidy, CalMac can do the job because the operation of a large fleet covering multiple routes gives it the requisite flexibility. Trying to operate a model based on six-year competitive tendering cycles was probably always doomed to failure. Officials arguing this case would have had no shortage of examples from elsewhere in Europe, including the Altmark bus company serving the German town of Stendal, which successfully argued in the European Court of Justice that payments by governments to companies providing essential services should not be seen as state aid, provided they are clearly defined.
Instead of using the Altmark judgment to press Scotland's case, DfT officials appear to have assumed the role of European Union policemen. This makes a mockery of the UK government's professed concern for its island communities. As with successive European fisheries deals and the placing of a vital order for a fisheries protection vessel with a Polish company rather a struggling Clyde shipyard, Scottish interests have been ignored. The way that the clear wishes of ministers are being undermined by civil servants is at odds with democratic accountability and reinforces the case for Scotland's political leaders making their own case in Brussels. It is absurd to suggest that EC commissioners would pull the plug on vital ferry routes serving vulnerable communities. Scottish ministers should have the courage of their own convictions and insist on the need to participate in making the policies that will have a vital impact on the future of their country.
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