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A controversial bid by CalMac’s nationalised owner to control Oban Bay looks set to succeed, as a report advises the council’s Harbour Board today to reject an independent Trust Port – for now.
The crunch meeting to finally decide who manages ‘The Gateway to the Isles’, one of Scotland’s busiest ports, is being advised to choose between Oban Bay’s two statutory harbour authorities, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), or Argyll and Bute Council (A&BC), a ‘minority user’ that has said it is ‘not equipped to manage a port that has 13,000 vessel movements’.
The report sets out the problem, and the saga trying to solve it: ‘Various organisations have different responsibilities for areas of Oban Bay, some parts of the bay are not part of the specific jurisdiction of any organisation, and this situation can lead to confusion for users, with no organisation in sole control of the bay itself.
‘The 2018 proposal for CMAL becoming the harbour authority, with the council remaining nested at North Pier would have provided a solution to cover the whole of Oban Bay.’ This plan was met by suspicion from mariners.
In a consultation by the Oban Bay Management Group (OBMG), which supported the bid, only seven per cent of 550 voters agreed, while 63 per cent opposed a single user managing the bay in favour of an independent trust.
When the OBMG refused to ditch CMAL’s bid, despite an ‘overwhelming’ majority vote against it, Oban’s business and tourism chiefs accused CMAL of bulldozing through its plans.
The row calmed after the Harbour Board voted for a pause, ‘given the interest expressed locally in establishing a trust port’, and a volunteer group, the Oban Community Harbour Development Association (OCHDA), was set up to progress it.
The council commissioned an Options Appraisal, by financial management consultancy Caledonian Economics, to assess five options: to continue as at present; a Trust Port including or excluding the current harbour limits around North Pier; CMAL as a unitary Harbour Authority; and A&BC as a unitary Municipal Port.
The council’s report concluded: ‘While it is regrettable that the Trust Port proposal has not sufficiently developed to allow it to progress at this time, what is clear is that time continues to pass without any solution being progressed.
‘It is important that a satisfactory outcome for the safe management of Oban Bay is progressed at pace and with no further unnecessary delays.
‘The council or CMAL progressing matters are inherently safer in that they can be delivered in a shorter timescale.
‘That is not to say that the Trust Port option cannot be progressed at a future point.’
In response, OCHDA said it had ‘demonstrated that with input from Argyll & Bute Council a Trust Port is the safest option, and can be readily achieved as much of the preparatory work has already been completed’.
John MacAlister, chairman of OCHDA’s management committee, said: ‘No appraisal has been made of any proposal, other than the OCHDA Trust Port proposal, as there is no other proposal on the table. The appraisal is seriously flawed and cannot safely be used to guide such an important decision.’
OCHDA’s management committee added: ‘There is no assessment of the potential economic or social impact of any of the options on any of the stakeholders or communities most affected.
‘Legal advice within the report regarding current and historical responsibilities – and therefore the changes required – is at best arguable and, we believe, simply incorrect.
‘Finally, the report makes an assumption that all the options available are equally safe but presents no evidence to support this. OCHDA believes that this is vital and incorrect.
‘OCHDA is asking the Harbour Board to reject the report and ask officers to undertake a full options appraisal.
‘As A&BC have repeatedly publicly stated that they lack the skills and resources to manage the waters of the bay, it seems that the council is backing CMAL.
‘If the Trust Port option is rejected, then OCHDA would favour the council option over that of CMAL taking responsibility.’
Linda Battison, a former director of Oban and Lorn Tourism Alliance, said: ‘There is nothing worse than a sham consultation. If the council is determined to ride rough shod over the views of stakeholders it should be held to account.
‘It is extremely disappointing and indeed disingenuous of the council to continue to publicly encourage the development of a Trust Port for Oban whilst privately promoting the CMAL option.
‘Leisure tourism is a growth market for Oban. The future of this important market could be compromised if CMAL were to take over as the single harbour authority. CMAL will look after their own interests first.’
The Royal Highland Yacht Club has written to the chief executive of Argyll and Bute Council, Pippa Milne, in support of a Trust Port.
Oban Community Council on Monday also reinforced its 100 per cent support for a Trust Port, and will pen a letter to Argyll and Bute bosses.