Jura’s ‘despair’ at council’s lifeline ferry service

The ladder providing access to the passenger ferry had been cited as dangerous by Jura residents.

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Would you feel safe sending your baby, schoolchild, or great grandmother up and down this ladder, in the rain and wind, with a ferry heaving in the cold, choppy waters below?

What if you had to use it to get to school, hospital visits, food, for your business supplies and deliveries, mail, tourism, commuting, holidays, etc, or other lifeline services essential to make a life and a living on an island?

These were the questions Jura’s 200 islanders, plus its many visitors, faced again this week.

On Monday, people had to use this rusty, 12ft high, ‘dangerous’ ladder to board and disembark Argyll and Bute Council’s lifeline ferry service, after its ‘ageing’ vehicle ferry was replaced by a passenger-only RIB. This time it was not due to a technical issue, but a lack of crew.

It was the last straw for Jura Community Council, which has now ‘lost faith in Argyll and Bute Council as a ferry service provider’.

While attention focuses on CalMac’s ageing, failing fleet, a ‘crisis’ is also engulfing another Hebridean ferry operator, Argyll and Bute Council, which serves the Isles of Luing, Lismore, Easdale, and Jura. As its new councillors’ meet for the first in Kilmory Castle today, the issue has floated to the top of their in-tray.

‘Anger and despair’ is growing amongst Jurachs, not just about the ‘unsafe’ ladder at Feolin pier, or their continued calls for a safer replacement, but about Argyll and Bute Council’s ‘deteriorating’ ferry service.

It reached breaking point last Tuesday, May 10, when Jura Community Council posted a message from Argyll and Bute Council on social media, saying: ‘Due to staff turnover in our ferry team, and an unsuccessful recruitment process, we are short of qualified staff to operate MV Eilean Dhiura vehicle ferry service [on] 16, 18 and 20 May 2022.

‘Alternative arrangements have been made as follows: Monday 16 May passenger only service; Wednesday 18 May and Friday 20 May relief vehicle ferry service cover [with] MV Spanish John. However this will be car only service with no capability for HGVs on these dates.’

The disruption affected ‘every aspect of island life on Jura’, complained islander Sarah Compton-Bishop to her MSPs.

‘Son, daughter-in-law and one-year-old baby arrive from America on Monday,’ wrote one islander: ‘Looking forward to getting them all and their luggage up that metal ladder!’ One parent told us her daughter, who does ‘not feel at all safe’ on the ‘very frightening’ ladder, did not go to Islay High School that day.

‘So what happens if you have deliveries, collections arranged, or even car departures on May 16?’ asked one business owner. ‘Are we compensated for it all? How does this work with holidays, hospital visits, family emergencies?’

‘Will Argyll & Bute Council cover the cost to the shop?’ asked Katy Beasley of the island’s only store, which receives deliveries on Mondays. ‘Previously when the ferry has been broken down, we have been told that goods have to be hand carried on and off the ferry. We do not have spare staff to drive eight miles, get a ferry, wait an hour or so for the next ferry to cross back to Jura, and then get the goods back to Craighouse.’

An island postie could not deliver Monday’s mail, because it was impractical ‘to get that amount of mail/parcels/bags on and off a rib’.

The MV Eilean Dhiura, a lifeline ferry service run by Argyll and Bute Council between Feolin on Jura and Port Askaig on Islay, which connects both islands to the mainland.

‘Once again, we are faced with a situation where 80-year-olds, parents with babies, and pets must scale an unsafe rusty ladder to embark and disembark from the island,’ wrote Neil Gow, a Jura community councillor, in a desperate plea to MSPs for help.

‘Meanwhile, businesses, services, and commuters face complete economic disruption at a time when the island is desperately trying to reopen, including the first post-pandemic fell race and whisky festival just weeks away. Furthermore, our healthcare and emergency service response is dependent on unhindered inter-island travel.

‘This time it is not even a breakdown on the aging vessel (or its inadequate relief vessel) but is blamed on “staff turnover”. But this is only the latest symptom of what has been a complete mismanagement by the council, with little concern for the crew, and total disregard and contempt for the community of Jura.’

In another letter to Argyll’s MSPs and MP, Sarah Compton-Bishop wrote of the Jura to Islay ferry reaching a ‘crisis point’: ‘This issue – one of short staffing – has come about due to poor management, poor planning, undervaluing of ferry crew, poor workforce planning, and a refusal to listen to or act upon concerns raised by the Jura community for years now.

‘This ladder is considered by everyone to be completely unsafe and indeed the Jura Community Council have been urging for a replacement for many years. This has never been actioned by the council.

‘Our children are being penalised because of the island they happen to live on. Whilst I’m sure travelling to school will never be a joy for pupils, they should at a minimum feel safe.

‘We are told Argyll and Bute Council wish to support a growing population in rural areas. Our small island is a huge success story in terms of what the community and individuals have achieved. We have ambitious, growing businesses, creative individuals, a busy working age population, a very full school.

‘However, instead of supporting this, the council seem intent on de-populating our island by slowly eroding our transport links, and in fact their narrative appears to be that we ‘chose to live on Jura’, and we should therefore be grateful that there are ever any ferries at all.

‘Most disappointing has been the lack of regard for the community and lack of communication.

‘Something must be done. Argyll and Bute Council have clearly demonstrated that they lack the ability to manage this essential lifeline service. They must be held to account, and an immediate solution put in place with support and oversight from a range of partners.’

An Argyll and Bute Council spokesperson said: ‘The allegations made against council staff are incorrect and misleading. Our staff are working extremely hard to keep the ferry service going for islanders, and we ask people to treat them courteously.

‘Because of staff shortages we have to temporarily reduce the number of ferry sailings on 16, 18 and 20 May. Normal service, however, will resume on 21 May.

‘We understand local concerns and apologise for the temporary disruption.

‘We want to deliver a service that supports community and business life on Jura and are dedicating investment to make that possible. The safety of passengers is a priority and we need to recruit suitably qualified and experienced people.

‘This has proven challenging due to the level of operating licence required for the class of ferry and category of waters. We are making every effort to address recruitment challenges and are working to find a solution soon. We welcome any interest in roles, and support from the community in raising awareness of vacancies would be welcome. Please get in touch by emailing roadsandinfrastructure@argyll-bute.gov.uk.

‘Despite these temporary challenges, we continue to provide a ferry service connecting Jura and Islay with arrangements in place to support emergency vehicles if required.

‘The council is committed to keeping Jura connected via ferry. We have invested in new engines and major structural works to the Jura ferry. In addition, we are considering applying for funding to install a floating pontoon and gangway and looking to include a new ferry for Jura as part of our Levelling Up Bid.

‘We are committed to supporting community and business life in Jura.’