Navigating the Future: Scotland's Need for Home-Built Ships

Like many I’ve been enjoying the BBC Scotland series “Island Crossings” about Cal Mac. I’m old enough to remember when it was David McBrayne’s and I continue to use the service, even if less frequently than when summer holidays were invariably spent with my grandparents on the Isle of Lewis.

Like all fly on the wall documentaries, it’s providing an insight into the work, but also highlighting the current challenges faced by staff and the communities they serve. Engineers and crew struggling to maintain ageing engines and shore-based staff requiring to juggle timetables and ferries around communities, all with urgent needs. These, after all, are lifeline services and alternatives simply don’t exist. Something has gone seriously wrong in our national shipping service and it’s not the crew to blame.

What then needs done? Well, firstly there’s Scottish communities in need of ships and yet a Scottish shipyard under threat. It’s not rocket science to link the two not just for their mutual benefit but ours collectively. For it’s not just about securing the future for Fergusons, now the last yard on the lower Clyde, and where the workforce is ageing, but providing opportunities for other yards on the Clyde and elsewhere.

Contracts for vessels to plough Scottish waters should not be going to Turkey or south of the border. Orders for future Cal Mac vessels must be placed in Scotland. Fergusons, needs the work and is capable of doing it. The glory days of Clyde shipbuilding may have passed but the skills remain, and future generations deserve an opportunity in an area ravaged by unemployment. Even in the beleaguered Cal Mac fleet, the Scottish built ships remain amongst the most reliable.

Expanding into the Inchgreen Dry Dock in Greenock allowing increased space is essential and if that means compulsory purchase of it from Peel Ports, who own Clydeport, then so be it. There’s, in any event, a clear conflict of interest when Peel Port also own Cammell Laird shipyard. Not only do they have a vested interest in shipping as the owners of the Port of Liverpool but also in ship building on the Mersey.

There’s not just an immediate need for ships in remote Scottish communities but one that’ll continue for years to come given the work that needs done. It would keep Fergusons occupied and on an enlarged site but also afford opportunities further up the Clyde and on other estuaries. To fail to keep the orders in Scotland would be an act of self-harm of gargantuan proportions.

But it’s not just building the ships in Scotland that’s needed, they also have to be the right ships. The problems with the Glen Sannox and which will be faced by the sister vessel is not the shipbuilders but the design. A contract signed off before the specifications were finalized led to constant friction as designs were chopped and changed, escalating costs and lengthening delays.

But fundamentally it’s the wrong design. Dual fuel marine diesel/LNG engine’s are almost invariably shunned on this size of vessel. Compounding that the infrastructure for LNG is still lacking and will be costly when it comes. Even then there’s the absurdity of being unable to use LNG when embarking or disembarking port meaning that much of the Ardrossan Brodick journey renders it a pointless system to have. But an exceedingly costly one as we’re finding out.

It’s widely believed that it’s not the design or ship that Cal Mac wanted and it’s most certainly not what communities were seeking. Yet Scots do design ships and the yards and skills are already here as shown above. Dr Stuart Ballantyne is an exiled Scot now resident in Australia. But he cares about his native land, grieves at the decline in shipbuilding there and is conscious of the needs of the communities. He’s a talented man and has built ships and continues to do so which sail in Australian and South Sea Island waters. If they can cope with waters there, then they can manage the Minch and other Scottish sea lanes.

He’s offered his designs to the Scottish Government for literally a song. Many communities have seen what he’s suggested and are eager to have them provide the service to their island. But the Scottish Government has declined that offer.

Why? Because CMAL, the quango culpable for the Glen Sannox shambles, don’t like the catamaran design he uses. But catamarans are cheaper to build, more economical to run, carry greater passenger and freight numbers, as well as being more environmentally friendly.

This absurdity must stop. The Glen Sannox still hasn’t gone into service, and time will tell if it ever does, but to commission a similar design is simply foolhardy. CMAL, who procure the ferries for Cal Mac should be abolished. They’re a quango that has failed.

Let Cal Mac and communities choose what vessels they want. After all, both know the ships best and rely upon them. Let’s use the design that a successful Scot has come up with and build them here. Growing our industrial base and providing a quality and reliable service for our communities.

At the same time let’s democratize Cal Mac. It’s shameful that privatization of it was ever considered through the thankfully binned Project Neptune which simply enriched consultants and offered nothing to workforce or islands. Likewise having as the Chair of Cal Mac someone who’s come over from a similar role at CMAL is akin to piracy, if not seeking to scuttle the service.

What’s needed, as the RMT who represent the crew and shore-based staff have argued, is a People’s Cal Mac. There’s something perverse that neither workforce nor communities are currently represented on the board. That has to change. This is a national service and those running it must include representatives of those who work in it and depend upon it. That would enhance the organization without impeding upon the management of the operation.

Island Crossings has shown the ability of the staff and crew, as well as the needs of vulnerable communities. What we need are the proper ships for them and vessels that are built here in Scotland, and to the design that those who sail them want and those who use them require.

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