A “low carbon sustainable” pilot ferry scheme could come to Western Isles to address concerns over the fleet’s resilience, Michael Gove has said.
Mr Gove today visited the Western Isles to hear first-hand issues islanders are facing, including concerns over their beleaguered ferry service.
The Cabinet Office minister visited Stornoway Harbour where he met Western Isles Council (WIC) leader Roddie Mackay to discuss the “number one issue for islanders”.
The meeting came after the Western Isles chief wrote direct to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Mr Mackay urged Mr Johnson to intervene due to what he described as Holyrood’s unwillingness to address “systemic service failure”.
Materials and produce stranded
Mr Mackay took action following the publication of the Union Connectivity Review after he said he had grown fed up with a lack of progress in the past five years.
He argued recent issues with the MV Loch Seaforth vessel “shone a brighter light on the lack of resilience in the fleet”.
The ferry’s woes resulted in disruption and connectivity issues, with materials for the construction industry stuck on the mainland and fresh seafood produce bound for market stranded on the islands.
Gove visits after ‘unrelenting chaos’
In his letter to the prime minister, Mr Mackay said the ferry network has experienced a period of “unrelenting chaos” in a time of “unprecedented stress and strain”.
The Prime Minister wrote back to Mr Mackay on Monday stating that Mr Gove would attend in his place to experience first-hand the concerns of locals.
Mr Gove said he recognised the disappointment of WIC over stalled talks with the Scottish Government, but did suggest a “low carbon sustainable approach” towards ferry services could be piloted in the Western Isles.
The approach could be made possible through a bid to the £4.8 billion UK-wide levelling up fund.
‘Very persuasive’ case made
He said: “Transport links are incredibly important and it is absolutely vital that those transport links are reliable for individuals living in the Western Isles, but also for the businesses that are based in the Western Isles, and also for those that supply the raw materials and the goods on which people in the Western Isles rely.”
The cabinet minister said Mr Mackay had presented a “very persuasive” case for the islands with talks at an early stage.
Mr Gove added that it was the UK Government’s job to explore options for the people of the Western Isles, despite transport being a devolved issue, adding: “You are no less a citizen of the UK if you are in Lewis than if you are in London.”
Partnership working required between both UK and Scottish governments
Mr Gove also called on the Scottish and UK governments to work together to best serve the needs of the people of the Western Isles, and wider Highlands and islands.
He said: “It is undoubtedly the case that in the Highlands and islands there are a specific set of challenges.
“Of course, it is good news that we are seeing growth and job creation in Inverness and in the Moray and Cromarty Firth areas.
“It is also the case that we need to recognise that whether it is energy, transport connectivity, digital connectivity, economic productivity overall or jobs and skills, there are some unique challenges here and we need to be involved.
“This is one of the most important parts of the United Kingdom for the future and we have got to make sure we are working with those on the ground empowering communities to build a better future for the next generation.”
Hopes bonds can be strengthened
Mr Mackay said he was “very pleased” at the positive response of the UK Government and hoped Mr Gove’s visit would help strengthen existing bonds between WIC and Westminster.
He said: “Mr Gove made it clear he would help in any way he could and he is keen to assist even where it would be a joint approach between themselves and the Scottish Government.
“He encouraged us to submit bids to the levelling up funding which is designed to help areas on the periphery.
“We are very pleased with the response and the feedback we have got on the day and the commitments that were made to continue dialogue and support us.”
Mr Mackay said efforts to explore the potential ferry pilot will continue.
He added: “It is an innovative idea that ties in with the work we are doing on the ground here around the port.
“Already under the islands deal both governments have committed to providing £11 million to the actual development of the energy hub at Arnish, and we just feel this idea of the ferry is complimentary to that.
“It could be a very exciting pilot project which would have implications for Scotland, the UK and beyond, as the current press and enthusiasm for hydrogen continues.”