Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, met with Michael Matheson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity last week to discuss transport issues in the Western Isles including ferry services. Also present were representatives of Transport Scotland and HITRANS
Cllr Robertson said: “Our meeting with the Cabinet Secretary Michael Matheson was very useful. We were assured that he appears to have a good handle on his new brief and has clearly spent some time on the issues that are a concern for us all regarding ferry and aviation travel.
We discussed general issues around capacity, reliability and resilience issues affecting ferry services to and within the Western Isles and challenged him on the levels of investment in vessels and the associated infrastructure and, perhaps more importantly, the robustness of decision-making.
The Cabinet Secretary and Transport Minister have confirmed that they and Transport Scotland are seeking to develop and implement a strategy which will focus on having a fleet of ferries that are more in keeping with what is both suitable for our waters whilst also recognising what is available worldwide. An aspiration for a greater level of standardisation across the network and fleet is included within this. It was confirmed that Scottish Government and its various agencies continue to explore options associated with the additional tonnage that all parties recognise is required.
In addition, the delays to the delivery and availability of a new ferry for the Uig Tarbert Lochmaddy route remain a concern; not only does this have an adverse impact on the ability to accommodate the additional and growing demand during peak periods but also the poor levels of resilience within the existing fleet. This is regrettable as, without the necessary resilience, disruption to ferry services will continue in the event of breakdowns.
Time was spent discussing the potential for relocation of central government and associated agency jobs (Transport Scotland, CMAL, CalMac Ferries Ltd, HIAL) to the islands. For example, we had a good discussion about the need to relocate CalMac management jobs to the island served by the network and the need to have more shore-based crew in the Western Isles. The issue of training and apprenticeships available in the islands was also discussed.
The meeting with the Cabinet Secretary also provided a welcome opportunity to discuss aviation issues that are relevant to the Western Isles.
The continuation of the Air Discount Scheme beyond its current lifetime of April 2019, the reinstatement of business user eligibility and the extension of the scheme to students living and studying within the “eligible area” were discussed. The need for aviation to be included within the new National Transport Strategy was also discussed and the Comhairle’s concerns regarding the impact of HIAL’s centralisation strategy for air traffic management on the economy of the Western Isles were reiterated.
In conclusion, we have very much welcomed the opportunity to recently meet with both the Cabinet Secretary and the Minister and are confident that our very real concerns are being recognised by both”.