Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting a parliamentary reception on behalf of the British Ports Association and UK Chamber of Shipping. Once again, the event, now in its tenth year, saw the Garden Lobby at Holyrood packed with representatives from across the maritime sector as well as MSPs from all parts of the country.
In the midst of a General Election, albeit a Westminster campaign, it was an impressive ‘show of force’ from my parliamentary colleagues. Most will be under pressure from their respective parties to be out knocking doors, distributing leaflets and generally pestering the public for votes. That so many chose instead to attend the maritime reception speaks volumes for the importance of this sector to communities the length and breadth of Scotland, as well as to the Scottish economy as a whole.
From an Orkney perspective, of course, this is all rather self-evident. Moreover, when one considers the extent to which the provision of health, education and other key services depends on our ferry network, it is no exaggeration to say that shipping is not just an engine of our economy but a genuine lifeline.
That being the case, the decision by the Marine and Coastguard Agency to impose a restriction on “high-sided” vehicles being carried on the MV Eynhallow is deeply concerning. The move followed an inspection by the MCA, and the consequences are potentially serious and wide-ranging, threatening disruption to everything from the movement of livestock to any building projects taking place in Rousay, Egilsay or Wyre. With ongoing uncertainty around the detail and extent of restrictions, there are even concerns about possible interference with the movement of some emergency vehicles.
Given the urgency of the situation, I took time ahead of the reception last week to speak at length to Orkney Ferries as well as to Orkney NFUS. Having discussed the background to the MCA decision and its potential impact, we moved on to consider the options available. Ideally, the MCA can be persuaded to accept the case for a specific exemption that would allow high-sided vehicles to be carried subject to certain conditions being met, possibly including the posting of a crew member on watch.
This does not seem to be an unreasonable request and I have offered to make representations to the MCA to reinforce the case and ask for an urgent response, in light of the lifeline nature of the service affected. Meantime, it is essential that the local communities in Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre are kept updated and informed about developments.
More generally, however, this situation serves to reinforce once more the urgent need for the Scottish Government to reach agreement with Orkney Islands Council on the funding of replacement vessels for the internal services. Orkney Ferries are apparently looking at the option of ‘lifting’ the bridge on MV Eynhallow at a potential cost of £250,000 or more, but it is hard to argue that such significant funding would not be better spent investing in new, fit-for-purpose vessels on this and other key routes in Orkney.
Back in 2013, the SNP government’s own ferries plan recognised that Orkney’s internal services fall below the minimum standards in terms of cost, frequency and accessibility. Since then, there has been precious little done by the Scottish Government to help OIC and Orkney Ferries close the gap with services available to island communities elsewhere in Scotland.
This is a point I have made repeatedly to successive Transport Ministers over the years. I raised it again during parliament’s scrutiny of the Islands Bill last year. On each occasion, warm words and promises of further talks have been offered. Frankly, that has long since ceased to be an acceptable response.
By the time I come to host next year’s maritime reception, when the Transport Minister again will be invited to make the keynote speech, I hope he has something more positive to say about progress towards replacing Orkney’s ageing internal ferry fleet. If so, he can expect glasses to be raised, not just in parliament’s Garden Lobby, but in island communities across Orkney, including Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre.