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‘The life of the community will bleed away’: ferry group calls for action after loss of vital service costs £648,000 in two weeks

The MV Lord of the Isles
The MV Lord of the Isles

Islanders are stepping up pressure for a more reliable ferry service after the loss of a lifeline link cost the economy nearly £650,000 in two weeks.

The MV Lord of the Isles sailings between Mallaig and Lochboisdale in South Uist were halted for repairs between May 17-30.

It prompted Lochboisdale Ferry Business Impact Group to assess the economic impact on Uist and Barra following an “excessive” number of cancellations between November and March.

91% of businesses affected

Of 395 businesses surveyed across the islands, 91% said they were affected by the cancelled services, with a total loss of £648,000.

These involve a range of industries, including accommodation, food producers, IT and retail.

In response to the report, CalMac managing director Robbie Drummond will visit South Uist next week to discuss concerns directly.

The study was commissioned through community landowner Stòras Uibhist, with support from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and MKA Economics.

Stòras Uibhist chair Mary Schmoller says “the life of the community will bleed away” without a reliable ferry service.

They are “losing people to the mainland”, she says, “as people become reluctant to return to make their future here, whether as an entrepreneur, health care worker or teacher.”

Alasdair Allan MSP.

The assessment shows that for each day of cancelled sailings, Uist suffers a loss equivalent to almost two-and-a-half times a full year’s average salary locally (£46,285 a day).

One business said of the results: “Uist is speedily advancing in many industries such as renewables, heritage, food and drink production, with two new distilleries being built and even a space port in the plans.

“Uist is not held back by lack of ambition or capability, but by CalMac, CMAL, and Scottish Government treating our lifeline connection as expendable”.

Another said: “Uist is home to a strong Gaelic culture. Without a strong direct lifeline to the mainland that culture will quickly dilute and eventually evaporate with islanders forced to move their businesses and families to the mainland.

“It’s akin to a modern-day clearances”.

A third just said: “No ferry means no income, no jobs, no people”.

Lack of resilience in ferry network

The group, set up in response to the May cancellations, has discussed the findings and solution ideas with island MSP Alasdair Allan who has previously called for improvements.

Mr Allan welcomed the report, which he says “clearly demonstrates the tangible financial losses” that Uist experienced.

He says the cancellations were proof of a “complete lack of resilience in CalMac’s ferry network”, reiterating that the Hebrides “desperately need to see improvements” to ferry services.

“I am continuing to engage with the transport minister and CalMac on this at every available opportunity.”

The Lochboisdale Ferry Business Impact Group is also seeking meetings with transport minster Jenny Gilruth.

Uist is not held back by lack of ambition or capability, but by CalMac, CMAL, and Scottish Government

Uist business

The group looked into other services across the CalMac fleet and claim the Lochboisdale sailing is “disproportionately removed”, while South Uist has an “inadequate” number of weekly sailings in terms of population.

It argues that South Uist, Eriskay and Benbecula has a population of 3,200 and only 10 sailings a week, compared to other islands, such as Mull, which has a population of 2,667 and 209 sailings across its multiple routes.

“This would suggest CalMac prioritise day-tripping tourist numbers over the island residents it is contracted to serve.”

It is now calling for a clear contingency plan for all disruptions.

“Whilst Calmac did deploy the mezzanine deck on the already fully-booked Lochmaddy sailing, and an additional boat across the South of Barra, this was done many days after the cancellations were announced.

Transparent information on cancellations needed

“As such, bookings were already lost and not retrievable.

“A reasonable request is to have a well-known contingency plan that is actioned directly with any cancelation or removal of service.

The group is also seeking transparent information on cancellations.

“There seems to be a lack of consistency with what is classed as ‘adverse weather’. As such, the group would like CalMac to provide more information in the case of a cancellation, explaining exactly why the weather conditions exceed the safety parameters of the Lord of the Isles.”

In addition, it wants CalMac to provide compensation to businesses after cancellations.

It says while the ferry company covers expenses for passengers following a cancellation due to technical issues, there is no compensation for loss of bookings for accommodation and service providers.

CalMac managing director Robbie Drummond will meet people in South Uist next week

“The group would like to see these terms changed so that the impact on the island economy is less effected.

“With an understanding that CalMac are fined by Scottish Government for not completing their contracted services, the group see it more suitable that the fine be transferred directly to the community as the ones who are affected.

“How this money is spent should be up to the islanders and with the purpose of recovering the damage done to the local economy.”

CalMac and impact group set to meet

Responding to the report, CalMac said cancellations “are always a last resort, as we are very aware of the impact it will have on customers and the communities we serve.

“We restored the service to normal as soon as we possibly could,” a spokeswoman said.

She said CalMac “takes the concerns of local communities extremely seriously”.

“In response to the questions raised by Lochboisdale Ferry Business Impact Group, our managing director Robbie Drummond is visiting Daliburgh, South Uist next week to discuss these concerns in person.

“CalMac’s investment in vessel maintenance has increased by over 67% over five years, from £20.5m in 2018 to an estimated £34.2m in 2022.

“We do all that we can to try to prevent cancellations caused by technical issues.”

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