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Fed-up islanders want to run their own ferries

Moray Finch, chief executive of the Mull and Iona Community Trust. Image: Sandy McCook/ DC Thomson.
Moray Finch, chief executive of the Mull and Iona Community Trust. Image: Sandy McCook/ DC Thomson.

Islanders sick of the disruption to its ferry services are considering running their own vessels.

Mull and Iona Ferry Committee (MIFC), who have long held the Scottish Government to account over “unprecedented” disruption to its routes, is launching a feasibility study to take its routes into community ownership.

However the plans may already be dead in the water, as Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth has insisted will not split up the ferry services into smaller bundles.

But those living on the islands are determined to push on and investigate the plausibility of their idea.

With a grant of £15,000 from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, MIFC says it wants consultants to look at how smaller more fuel-efficient vessels could improve the service.

They will then turn their attention to convincing the government.

It might be a popular idea with islanders as it says profits from the ferry operation would be ploughed back into the community, rather than into the management of the ferry companies.

Government-owned CalMac currently runs the services, as well as the majority of routes on the west coast, as part of a tender on behalf Scottish Government.

‘Driving boats, not serving chips’

It runs to Mull and with onward travel to Iona. Its routes are between Oban and Craignure, Lochaline and Fishnish, Kilchoan and Tobermory, and Fionnphort to Iona.

The ferry group want a “Norwegian style” community takeover of ferry services from CalMac.

It wants to bring smaller more efficient vessels onto the route, and for staff to “drive boats” rather than “serve chips”, in reference to staff who work in hospitality aboard the larger vessels.

MIFC said it will undertake a feasibility study looking at community ownership as an alternative to the “current monopoly” run by CalMac and ferry and port-owning company Cmal.

CMal is also owned wholly by Scottish ministers.

Pointing to the government’s poor track record in recent years to procure new ferries for Scotland, MIFC chairman Joe Reade said: “Why should it be assumed that only CalMac and Cmal know how to run a ferry service?

Joe Reade, chairman of Mull and Iona Ferry Committee. Image: Joe Reade.

“We get mistake, after error, after delay – and at massive cost to all taxpayers, whether they live on the islands or not.

“We’ve had to tolerate the eye-watering amounts of public money spent on bloated bespoke ferries, and accept the £150 million and rising, given to David MacBrayne every year to keep them solvent.

“Rather than doing the same thing over and over and crossing our fingers for a different result, we need to ask ourselves if there might be a better way of running our ferry services and putting control and accountability in the hands of the communities these lifeline ferries serve.”

MIFC are investigating the suggestion made by Pentland Ferry operator Roy Pedersen in 2021, that a community-owned ferry company could provide a far better service at lower cost to the taxpayer.

‘We should modernise’

Mr Reade continued: “The Craignure to Oban ferry service could be maintained with less than half of the subsidy that would otherwise be required if Cmal’s new ‘Islay type’ ferries were used on the route.

“That includes the cost of buying new vessels – which I recommend to be medium-speed catamarans similar to those operated by Pentland Ferries.

“In addition, by using shore-based crews the timetable and operating hours could
be hugely improved.”

A catamaran similar to one being suggested for the Mull-Oban route. Image: Pentland Ferries/ Joe Reade.

Mr Reade, a successful businessman who employs dozens of people on the island, continued: “Hebridean ferry services are some of the most inefficient, wasteful and high cost in the entire world.

“Rather than protecting the failing status quo at huge cost, we should modernise both our vessels and our working practices.

“As representatives of islanders and users, we need higher capacity, higher frequency, better reliability, more weather-resilience, longer operating hours and more convenience.”

Islanders will be consulted on the proposals

Moray Finch, general manager at development charity Mull and Iona Community Trust, believes the community ownership model could bring big benefits to the island.

“Community empowerment is at the core of SNP policy, and rightly so,” he said. “But that is contradicted by a controlling tendency and a central-belt focus.

“We hope that this piece of work will identify a way for community ownership to deliver a better service for our community within the constraints of a modified Clyde and Hebrides ferry services contract.”

After the feasibility study has been completed, the proposals will go out to consultation among locals.

Mr Finch added: “This is a community endeavour, for the benefit of the whole community.

The Loch Frisa was brought into service in summer 2022. Image: Sandy McCook/ DC Thomson.

“It is a hugely exciting idea, but not without hurdles and risks. We need an independent consultant to investigate the detail, assess the options and identify pros and cons.

“Only if it is viable, and only if it has the support of our islands will it go ahead. But ultimately it will be up to the Scottish Government to decide if they will allow a community company to take on a part of the ferry network.

“We look forward to exploring the options and possibilities with them.”

A Transport Scotland spokeswoman said: “We share the aims of the committee, and of the wider Mull and Iona communities, for sustainable and effective ferry services and while we do not recognise some of the criticisms made here, we look forward to continuing our constructive engagement with the committee on future services and vessel replacements.

“Scottish Ministers have been clear on multiple occasions, including the Transport Minister’s recent update to parliament on Project Neptune, that we will not consider splitting up the network or privatisation of any of the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services routes.”