We need to talk about ferries

In 2015, as work started on the building of two new ferries for Arran and the Hebrides, I visited the Ferguson yard in Port Glasgow.  The enthusiasm was palpable.  Boats being built on the Clyde again!

6 years on, it’s all gone wrong – 4 years late and £100m over budget.  2 more ferries for Islay and Jura will now be built in shipyards in Poland, Romania or Turkey.

The first ferry – Glen Sannox, due to ply the Firth of Clyde Ardrossan-Brodick run – is still in the yard.  It won’t start service until late Summer 2022.  The second boat, known as Hull 802, will begin sailing the Outer Hebrides/Skye route a year later.

If you travel to Arran, or other islands off the west coast of Scotland, you’ll know how sorely needed the new vessels have been for a long while now.  The service between ports is often sub-standard.

For Arran residents and visitors this invariably means cancellation, because bad weather makes Ardrossan harbour unsafe.  Or the linkspan – the ramp between port and deck – is broken.  This is also a problem at Gourock, once the alternative to Ardrossan.

There are other pretexts for service breakdowns.  Last month, the front page of the Arran Banner (which must have the words ferry, fiasco and fury forever set on its printers) reported that all sailings to Arran were cancelled, because 2 of Ardrossan port’s 23 staff tested COVID-positive.  No contingency, just everything shut for a day (7 crossings, thousands of passengers and hundreds of vehicles).

For some, the ferries hold connotations of bucket-and-spade getaways; it’s a pleasure to get on the boat, have a drink, a portion of chips and relax.  But, for islands like Arran, tourism is their anchor.  Reliability of scheduled crossings is fundamental to economic survival.  If boats don’t sail, the hotels, holiday lets, cafes, pubs, shops and countless other businesses suffer the loss immediately.

For islanders especially, these lifeline services are vital for work, deliveries and medical appointments.  If you’re sick on Arran, it’s compounded by worrying if you’ll be able to reach the hospital.  The only other way is to be helicoptered to the mainland.

Islanders and regular visitors also question some of the infrastructure decisions made.  For example, the Brodick harbour project cost over £30m but, as the Arran Ferry Action Group says, the new berth is misaligned, meaning it’s harder to dock in the frequent easterly winds.

Brodick’s new terminal building, a clunky block, makes the walk to and from the boat much longer than the old gangway.  Many passengers – with kids, buggies, luggage, golf carts and dogs in tow – have to use the vertiginous stairs.

Why was so much spent on the Brodick facility when the crying need was (and still is) the seaboard entrance to Ardrossan?  Who makes these decisions, and why?  How much do the construction, service and network of these key links involve the people who use, care and pay for them?  

The last 2 questions can read across to other transport services in Scotland, like trains and buses.  Following record levels of passenger (not customer!) dissatisfaction with Dutch company Abelio’s franchise, Scotrail will soon come back into public ownership.  Is this a chance to ensure that the poor bloody passengers, and workers, are part of the future decision-making process?

First Bus runs over 100 routes in Glasgow.  There are constant complaints of unreliability, services being cut and fares hiked.  A Glasgow survey of nearly 3000 bus users showed only 16% satisfaction.  Unite, campaign groups and the public want the present bus networks – profit-driven yet heavily subsidised by tax and ratepayers – brought under public control.

Ferries, trains and buses in Scotland happen to, not with, people.  It’s their business, not ours.  Like it or lump it.

The model of publicly funded services being left to a company to run has become commonplace throughout the UK.  What the Thatcherites couldn’t flog off and privatise, they farmed out to profit-making entities, a trend spurred on by Blair/Brown governments.

This has facilitated the now sickening levels of corruption throughout British public life, especially when it comes to who gets the lucrative contracts. 

At Holyrood, with proportional representation, levels of graft and sleaze are as nothing compared to Westminster.  Yet our civic amenities still tend towards top-down management, lack of control for users and unreliable quality of service.

The point of independence is to make our country a better place to live, work and be.  If business as usual is second-rate, then we’re bound to campaign for a different kind of Scotland, one that serves its people properly.

Being a better nation also means becoming a more democratic one, so that ordinary people can have a say in the running of transport – and education, health, social services, utilities etc.

How exactly can we start to improve our transport networks and ensure that they come to be truly public in terms of participation?  Does it have to wait until we achieve independence?  Shouldn’t it be part of the push towards Scotland becoming its own nation again?  Independence isn’t a shortcut to get past these issues, it’s a means of engaging with them. 

We’re not talking about token consultative committees, tacked on to existing structures.  It needs a shift in power away from self-selecting and appointed individuals towards people whose only interest is the service itself.

Though ultimately Abelio got its jotters from the Transport Secretary, it seems unlikely that a bigger shake-up – involving the public – will spring from Holyrood, an institution settled in its norms of influence and pressure.  Lobbyists gonna lobby.

A radical re-think on the buses might come from local councils, but it would probably be a defensive move, to curb a clamour of passengers’ complaints.

As to our beleaguered ferries, is there a realistic way to get passengers engaged in control of the service?  West coast ferries’ operator Calmac have appointed their own community board, but why not get Arran Ferry Action Group and other local voices into the main boardroom?

How do you even start to set up a system to incorporate the public? 

Before we devise mechanisms for participation, maybe the vital spark of democratic control is shown by the gumption of the recently formed Govan Free State, which aims to reclaim our freedom and collective responsibility from below.  There is no one coming. There is only us.

More bambassadors and poeticians now!

Paul Bassett


November 2021

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