Lifeline needed for stranded island community

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Kerrera is in crisis with half its population cut off from reaching the mainland.

A community emergency has been declared by the island’s development trust, desperate for  a winter ferry over to Oban from the north end of the island.

The impact of Covid and a reduced summer income for the privately-run Oban Marina business meant Samantha and Robin King could not afford to keep running a  ferry service subsidised by themselves for residents living at their end of the island, and with no road option to reach the Gallanach-bound government-funded CalMac ferry service in the south of Kerrera, it means islanders are effectively cut off from travelling to Oban.

Residents and their families making up half the island’s population are  stranded without it, says Martin Shields, chairman of the Isle of Kerrera Development Trust (IKDT), but added that it is not the marina’s fault.

Historically, the winter ferry from Oban Marina has never covered costs but money made by the business in non-Covid summers has usually cushioned it.

‘We have not cancelled or withdrawn the service. We are a small commercial business effectively running a subsidised service for council-tax paying residents. Because of the loss we’ve made this summer, we just can’t afford to run it like we have before,’ said Mrs King.

The only time residents can now travel on a marina ferry is when a berth-holder needs access to their vessel – not a frequent occurrence in winter months. When it does happen, the marina helpfully puts out an alert on a special WhatsApp group and their website to let residents know.

‘If people can get to the ferry and want to use it then that’s not a problem,’ added Mrs King.

One family with two children has already had to leave the island due to problems accessing the mainland and others are struggling to get to work, doctors’ appointments and shops, facing long walks to the Gallanach ferry and back home, sometimes having to rely on just torchlight.

Mr Shields said the situation is ‘absolutely desperate’, but added: ‘It’s not the responsibility of a private business to provide a lifeline for residents. They should not be held over a barrel. That’s the simple fact.’

IKDT had already asked for £40,000 funding from the Scottish Government and help from Argyll and Bute Council to keep the marina’s reduced-rate winter ferry running, but with no success.

A spokesperson for Argyll and Bute Council said: ‘The council is working with the Scottish Government to help deliver a permanent solution for residents living on the north of the island. In the meantime we would welcome government support for a short-term, life-line ferry service.’

Mike Russell MSP has also been lobbying to get help with the dire situation on ‘every desk’, from government ministers to top council executives, including the chief executive Pippa Milne, ‘but no one is willing to step forward’ to provide the money needed, said Mr Shields.

‘Who is responsible? Is it the government or the council? Lots of people are talking about it but no one wants to say we’ve got this, we’ve got you.

‘What we need urgently is an emergency dig out. We are in December now and a modest sum of £20,000 would fund the development trust to run a community ferry in the short-term, two ferries a day until March, working with Oban Marina,’ he added.

Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron has been urging the Scottish Government and other agencies, too, for a lifeline service until work is put in place in March to get a proper road to them that would link them to the ferry at the south end of the island.

He said: ‘The loss of the ferry service from Oban Marina due to the impact of Covid-19 is a grievous blow, especially since proper road access to the affected part of the island is not due to be put in place until March of next year and that is why I am urging the Scottish Government, or one of its agencies, to intervene and provide a lifeline service. We cannot allow this community to struggle on through the winter months without help.’

Mr Shields said although ‘great progress’ was being made on the road project it was still ‘the long-term holy grail’.

‘We hope we can talk about the road connecting both ends of the island being a reality in the near future. It’s in touching distance but for the time being we have got half the island population in crisis in terms of accessing the mainland. When we have the road there will be no need to rely on a ferry from Oban Marina,’ he said.