What happened on Gourock-Dunoon (Part 2)

This is a follow up to the soldout posting and should be read after it

The tender process was officially launched at the end of 2009, the shortlist of four companies for the route was announced on the 13th April 2010, the tender documents were finally issued to the four shortlisted companies on 18th February 2011. So it took almost a year after the shortlist was drawn up for the candidates to be told the details of what they had been shortlisted for.

We know (because they said so) that the Scottish Government had been trying to extend the June 30th 2011 deadline the European Commission had set for the tender to start, despite the fact they had had four years to organize the tender. We know why they wanted the announcement of the winning tender to be after May 5th, the simple explanation was that wanted a fast passenger ferry service run by their favourite operator but did not wish this to be public until after May 5th. This simple explanation explains what otherwise would be a maze of bizarre and puzzling misrepresentations, actions, and non-actions by the government, it certainly explains all the delays and deceits in my web postings and summarised in soldout

But why try to extend the process further beyond June 30th tender start deadline given that still gave enough time as we have seen to conceal the nature of the winning bidder until after the May 5th election?

The simple answer (and fully consistent with the basic simple explanation above) is that while prior sea and berthing trials on the planned route may be desirable but sometimes optional for conventional craft (like Argyll Ferries passenger vessel for the tender), if you are going to tender an unconventional fast ferry (catamaran, hovercraft or whatever) then sea trials would be essential, including for environmental reasons such as noise and effects of wash. For example, when Brian Souter's Stagecoach was doing fast ferry trials on the Forth in 2007, tests included effects of noise and also possible impact on estuary wildlife. But if you were going to do such trials for the Clyde, then as things stood with the June 30th start deadline and the stages that would have to be gone through before that, these trials would have to have been done before May 5th and would have been highly visible, to locals, politicians and the media. This helps explain why the Government wanted to extend the June 30th deadline - to allow these trials to take place after the election. It also explains it was Brian Souter that pulled out of the shortlist in April, it was clear by then there simply would have not have been time to do these trials on top of everything else needed with the June 30th deadline not being extended.

As I said in soldout, Brian Souter could not be said to be anything less than open (for anyone who bothered to actually look) about his intentions given that his technical adviser and representative for Gourock-Dunoon was a fast ferry specialist. It was the Government who must have realized at some point that plans to just keep all this under wraps until after the election were threatened by what would have been a need for pre-tender fast ferry trials.

Anyone who can find an alternative explanation (or set of explanations) to what has happened here is welcome to suggest them, believe me I have tried. But if you still think that even just the issue of the attempt to defer the tender deadline would suggest an almost unbelievable combination of stupidity and culpability on the part of the government, then it is worth noting a very similar thing happened with RET on the Western Isles a few weeks ago. This has been a multi-million pound trial of low fares that was due to end just after the May 5th election, after which they said they would review what to do. However, at some point someone would have phoned up the bright sparks in the government and pointed out that the timetables and fares for the summer season had to be sent for publication in brochures months in advance, and since this was just a trial the default was that they would be billed as shooting back up to pre-RET in these brochures. So what did the government do? Faced with the prospect of Irate islanders waving summer season brochures at hustings showing massive price rises, they simply extended the "trial" another year. No economic or social justification whatsoever, just as with Gourock-Dunoon a reaction to the Government suddenly realising that what they thought had been kicked into the long grass until after the election would in fact become horribly visible well before it - unless they did something about it, and in both cases a massive extra and unjustified cost to the taxpayer, let alone the costs to the users and dependent communities in the Gourock-Dunoon case.

As someone has supported the idea of an independent Scotland (to which I still subscribe) and indeed the SNP for decades I have to say this is not about politics, nationalism or unionism, it is a question of governance. Frankly, if you cannot govern basic public services like these competently and honestly, you should not be governing a country. As I said earlier the failures bring in issues of UK and EU law and it is at UK level and it is the UK authorities that have the right and obligations to set up and Independent inquiry into these issues - and it is the MPs through which pressure should now be put to do exactly that.

Neil Kay May 28th 2011