By Bill Heaney
The failure to deliver two new Clyde-built ferries for services to the Western Isles “exposes a multitude of failings” which leave islanders without promised lifeline links, according to a damning new report.
And led to widespread speculation that the ferries will now be scrapped on the stocks of the Ferguson Marine shipyard at Port Glasgow on the Firth of Clyde.
The cost of this to the Scottish taxpayer would be in the region of £400 million although it has been said that the former SNP Cabinet Secretary Graeme Dey was pushed out the Holyrood door after he estimated to feisty Finance Secretary Katie Forbes that the cost was more likely to be £1 BILLION.
The poisoned chalice of transport, where the provision of buses, trains and ferries is in complete disarray has now been passed to Jenny Gilruth, whose political career looks like it may be significantly shortened in the wake of this disaster.
The SNP will have to find a scapegoat to walk the ministerial plank and a referendum on Independence is sailing in political stormy waters while it disappears rapidly over the horizon.
Public spending body Audit Scotland probed why construction of two new ferries are running four years late and are almost two and a half times over budget.
The report estimates the cost of the vessels will hit £240 million, although former Scottish Government shipbuilding adviser Luke van Beek suggests the costs could be as high as £400m.
The report states the project lacked decision-making and oversight.
And it says there is “no clear understanding” of what has been achieved with “significant sums” of public money.
It warns major problems at the Ferguson Marine shipyard remain unresolved, weakening the resilience of Scotland’s ferry network.
Opposition parties say the government and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should be held to account over the “embarrassing fiasco”.
‘Significant’ work still needs done
The Scottish Government awarded the contract to build two new vessels, Hull 801 and Hull 802, to Ferguson Marine in October 2015. The two ships due to be completed in May 2018 and July 2018 respectively.
However problems were first reported to Transport Scotland only two months later and the shipyard ended up going into administration in August 2019.
It was brought into public ownership by the government in December the same year.
Audit Scotland’s report highlights failures right from the very beginning.
It describes how ministers approved the contract despite concerns being raised by Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL), the company which owns Scotland’s ferries, ports, harbours and ferry infrastructure. Milestones set out in the initial contract were “unrealistic”, dates were missed and delays got worse.
A two-year long dispute further complicated the project between CMAL and the shipyard over vessel design and costs.
Shortly before the shipyard went into administration in August 2019, both vessels were still years away from being completed and were already showing signs of deterioration.
Equipment had been damaged and no more than six people were working on Hull 801 with no more than two people on Hull 802 at any one time.
The report says the government did not have a full understanding of the scale of the challenges at the shipyard when it decided to nationalise Ferguson Marine.
Delays expose ‘multitude of failings’
Audit Scotland called for a detailed plan for the completion of the two vessels.
Government agency Transport Scotland will also need to review what went wrong by the end of the year.
Stephen Boyle, auditor general for Scotland, said: “The failure to deliver these two ferries, on time and on budget, exposes a multitude of failings.
“A lack of transparent decision-making, a lack of project oversight, and no clear understanding of what significant sums of public money have been achieved.
“And crucially, communities still don’t have the lifeline ferries they were promised years ago.”
Finance Secretary Kate Forbes defended the decision to nationalise Ferguson Marine, saying it saved the project to build the two new ships and protected over 300 jobs.
Ms Forbes admitted there were a number of “well-known” challenges but remains confident the two new ships will be completed as soon as possible.
She said: “The decision taken to safeguard the future of Ferguson Marine was the right one.”
Ms Forbes made her expectations “absolutely clear” to the management board at the shipyard, and says any suggestions the procurement process was not followed properly are “wrong”.
She added: “We are entering a new era of shipbuilding on the Clyde. Significant progress is being made and Ferguson Marine is back to being a serious contender for future vessel contracts.”
Scottish Conservative transport spokesman Graham Simpson said: “This report is absolutely damning of the SNP’s overwhelming failures on Scotland’s ferry network.
“Ministers have presided over an embarrassing fiasco year after year and it is our island communities who have been left abandoned.”
Neil Bibby MSP, Scottish Labour’s transport spokesman, criticised the government’s “relentless incompetence”.
He added: “While ministers have come and gone, the first minister has been a constant presence throughout this fiasco.”
Willie Rennie MSP, Scottish Lib Dem economy spokesman, said island communities are being “left all at sea” by the SNP’s failures.
He said: “This report places the blame for seven years of ferry failures squarely in the hands of SNP ministers.”
Willie Rennie then upped the ante. Around 4pm today he asked the Finance Secretary Forbes whether she will take responsibility and resign if delayed deadlines for the construction of two ferries by Ferguson Marine announced today are not met.
Mr Rennie said: “The minister tries desperately to distance herself from this ferry fiasco but these ferries were contracted by government-owned CMAL, paid for by the government, built originally by a company celebrated by the government and when it collapsed it was owned by the government. Still no minister has ever faced the music.
“So can I ask her again, if these latest delayed deadlines are not met, will she resign?”
The new Transport Minister, Jenny Gilruth, has task of rescuing the SNP from ferry disaster.