CalMac could be awarded direct ferry contract

The CalMac ferry, MV Finlaggan. Photograph: Scottish Government.

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CalMac could be directly awarded the next contract for ferry services across Scotland’s west coast and the Hebrides.

Scottish Government ministers will explore awarding the next contract for operating the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services to CalMac Ferries Ltd.

A due diligence process has been launched to establish the feasibility of a direct award through the use of the “Teckal exemption”.

This process will look at the award from a financial, operational and legal perspective as Holyrood aims to take a final decision next summer after engaging with communities and stakeholders.

Minister for Transport, Fiona Hyslop MSP, said: “I am acutely aware of the vital importance of these lifeline services for our island communities and that is why we must look at the optimum model for the next contract to ensure improvements across the network.

“A direct award to CalMac would help change the ethos of the service by shifting the focus from a commercial arrangement to a model more focused on the delivery of a public service.

“This would help drive service improvements, deliver better communications with communities and introduce meaningful performance indicators that better reflect the experience of passengers using the services.

“This contract award will sit alongside important policy measures to improve our ferry services, such as the Island Connectivity Plan and Fair Fares Review, as well as our significant investment in new vessels and infrastructure.

Ms Hyslop added: “I want to be very clear that this will not be an extension of the status quo. I expect a direct award to be a catalyst for positive change on the Clyde and Hebrides network, based on a more efficient, flexible model in the delivery of this important public service.”

CalMac welcomed Thursday’s announcement from the Scottish Government, before the current contract is set to end in August 2024.

The ferry operator’s chief executive, Robbie Drummond said: “We welcome the opportunity to work alongside the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland to ensure continuity of lifeline ferry services and a focus on continual improvement for communities across the Clyde and Hebrides.

“Taking the uncertainty out of the contract would allow us to focus all our efforts on improving service delivery, without the distraction of a highly resource-intensive procurement process.

“We have a highly skilled, committed and experienced staff, who care deeply about island and rural communities and are passionate about delivering the best possible service.

“We will continue to work in partnership with local stakeholders and communities to ensure the best possible outcomes for all who rely on our services.

“We are also looking forward to welcoming six major and 10 small vessels into the fleet in the near future, which will build capacity and resilience across our network.”

However, some MSPs in the Highlands and Islands have urged CalMac and the Scottish Government to ensure that improvements to services are made.

The ferry operator announced last week that its vessels would be facing a longer annual winter overhaul schedule this year, with a 21-day longer maintenance period maintained.

CalMac has also hired the MV Alfred from Pentland Ferries for a further six months to help it plug the gap left by the absent MV Hebridean Isles and issues related to its ageing fleet.

In a Holyrood debate on Thursday afternoon, SNP MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Alasdair Allan asked the Transport Minister about how the ferry operator would be held accountable if a direct contract was awarded.

“What will the government now do, through any directly awarded new contract, to hold CalMac’s senior management’s feet to the fire, given the widely expressed concerns that, under the existing contract, the leadership of the company has felt remote from the communities it serves?” he asked.

In her response Ms Hyslop said: “I do think that a direct award would allow service delivery to be more flexible.

I do think there needs to be a change in the management culture and ethos, relationships with key communities and indeed customers are critical to that. They are not just running a timetable, they must run a public service.”

After the announcement, Mr Allan added: “However ferries are run in the islands in future, operational and communications improvements to services are needed. Any direct award of this contract must not be a carte blanche for CalMac to go about business as usual.

“As outlined by the Transport Minister, the new contract, if awarded directly, must ensure a shift in ethos towards public service delivery as opposed to the existing commercial model, something which communities have been calling for.

“The introduction of meaningful performance indicators is also very welcome, and will be very helpful in identifying and measuring progress on areas in need of improvement.

“It is imperative that local residents and commercial customers are supported in contributing meaningfully to what is included in the new CHFS contract, and that the views of those who will be using these lifeline services are fully considered.”

Meanwhile, Scottish Green MSP for the Highlands & Islands, Ariane Burgess said: “It is crucial that we unlock the potential of our island communities by delivering a resilient ferry network to support Scotland’s future as a thriving island nation.

“The awarding of a direct contract should save the cost of an expensive tendering process, but it’s vital those savings are reinvested in creating a more resilient and responsive service and that any direct contract ensures meaningful community involvement in the operation of these lifeline services.”

Transport Scotland officials will hold a series of engagement events over the next week, to help shape the next contract.

These ‘drop-in’ sessions will be taking places on the following dates:

  • Brodick (Isle of Arran) – Ormidale Sports Pavilion: Monday November 20 at 18:30 – 20:30.
  • Craignure (Isle of Mull) – An Roth: Monday November 20 at 18:00 – 20:00.
  • Armadale (Isle of Skye), Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (Talla Mhor): Tuesday November 21 at 18:00 – 20:00.
  • Port Ellen (Islay), Ramsay Hall:  Wednesday November 22 at 18:00 – 20:00
  • Stornoway (Isle of Lewis), An Lanntair: Wednesday November 22 at 18:00 – 20:00

These engagement events will be followed by a wider public consultation in December.

CalMac operates 29 routes to more than 50 destinations, with a fleet of 35 vessels.