Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has called on Scottish Ministers to step in to ensure the lifeline ferry services to North Uist and Harris are maintained at the level committed to in the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services Contract that Ministers awarded to CalMac Ferries Limited.
This follows a proposal being submitted to local stakeholders that the island ferry MV Hebrides capacity is reduced by 20% by removing the capacity available on the ferry’s mechanical Mezzanine deck. This followed the widespread rejection of a proposal to amend the timetable to North Uist and Harris reducing frequency and moving sailings to unsocial hours.
Due to COVID concerns CalMac previously removed the Mezzanine deck earlier in 2021 which caused major capacity constraints on the routes across the Little Minch even in times when travel demand was suppressed by lockdown restrictions.
The proposal from CalMac will mean the communities who have already suffered from lost capacity due to the failure to complete the new vessel being built at Ferguson Port Glasgow that should have entered service on the routes in 2018 now face the hammer blow of a reduction in the capacity that was already recognised as insufficient a decade ago. The routes operated by MV Hebrides are already the third most capacity constrained on CalMac’s network and the certain consequence of this proposal will be to mean the routes become impossible to book at busy periods of the year.
It is understood that the proposal has arisen as the demand for travel on the route has seen an increase in the frequency of Mezzanine deck deployment with CalMac identifying a need for additional crew to support this activity and maintain the timetable and there is an unwillingness to meet this cost.
Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Chair of Transportation said: “This proposal to reduce capacity on MV Hebrides is completely unacceptable and I am asking the Transport Minister to step in and ensure that this proposal is overturned. If this means additional crew is needed then these crew members must be found. Whether this cost falls on CalMac or Transport Scotland is immaterial to islanders who should rightly expect a lifeline ferry service contract to be maintained on the terms it was awarded. The only option that is acceptable is to maintain the timetable and vessel capacity that was committed to under the contract.”
Cllr Roddie Mackay, Leader of the Comhairle added: “A failure to act on the issue of a ferry fleet whose capacity is insufficient and timetables are too infrequent is preventing islands from developing. This proposal is worse as it shows a Government contract deliberately altered to save money with no consideration of the damage it will do. This Government proudly implemented an Islands Act in 2018 that promised to support islands and meet their unique needs. This proposal is completely at odds with the Act and Ministers must complete a full Islands Impact Assessment so they understand the harm that will be caused and their legal obligation under the Act to step in to prevent this.”