Written by Aileen MacNicol Monday, 20 February 2012 14:11
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VALENTINE’S DAY brought fresh hope for Dunoon’s ferry campaigners when they finally met with Scottish Government transport chief Alex Neil.
The Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure travelled to Dunoon on Tuesday for a series of ‘very positive’ meetings with politicians from Argyll and Bute and Inverclyde, and local campaigners.
And out of those talks has come a number of pledges from Mr Neil which offer revived hope to those campaigning for the restoration of a town centre vehicle link.
Speaking to the Standard after the meetings, he said: “Our discussions have been very full and frank, cards on the table.
“It’s been agreed that I will look at the possibility of an alternative vessel for the route. The AliCat has caused a great deal of concern and there is strong feeling that a more appropriate vessel is required.
“This will not be an easy problem to solve, but I will be reporting back within a month.”
Asked whether he would be looking for a car-carrying replacement, he checked with civil servant Graham Laidlaw before replying: “There are difficulties with availability of vehicle carrying vessels but I emphasise we will be looking to see if it is possible.”
Regarding the possibility of the Scottish Government providing new custom-built ships, Mr Neil said: “We would need £150 million to build every ferry that we need across Scotland. With Westminster cuts, we don’t have that kind of money.
“But we are talking with the Treasury to find ways of funding new ferries, maybe through the investment bond programme. If we were able to do that it may turn out to be the best and cheapest option.”
Mr Neil will also chair a feasibility group tasked with investigating the long-term economic viability of a restored town centre vehicle service.
“This would update the Deloitte Touche report, which is a very good document but it is now 14 years old,” he said.
“The recent tender did allow for operators to include a vehicle service, but no bidder chose to do so. Availability of vessels is an issue and this study will look at whether this was the main reason [for no vehicle bid] or whether other factors came into play - such as operating costs or the six-year contract limit.
“We will also consider whether we need the contract period to be extended, for example from six years to twelve.
“The feasibility study will probably take at least until the end of this year, possibly longer. However, I am keen to get work underway and to ensure it is done professionally, producing a good, high quality report.
“This process will be completely open and transparent, nothing will be hidden away.”
On the subject of matters hidden away, Mr Neil was asked about the disappearance from the Scottish Government website of the Deloitte Touche report - covered in a recent edition of the Standard.
He said: “It is back on the website - there was no conspiracy, no ruse to hide it. Its removal was probably due to website ‘housekeeping’ - it is an older report and was possibly flagged up because of that.
“It is a good report but it is out of date and we need an update.”
Mr Neil acknowledged the importance of Cowal’s ferry services: “When we look at the severe weather recently which resulted in the Rest being closed, we can see that ferries here are a lifeline, not just a general service.
“It is very important that we do all that we can to keep ferries running.”
For his journey to Dunoon, Mr Neil experienced both of the town’s ferry services - travelling to Dunoon using Argyll Ferries, and returning on Western Ferries: “That way I won’t offend anyone!” he joked.
In light of the forthcoming local authority elections, he reaffirmed that his Dunoon visit was about ministerial business and not party politics. But he added: “We will be speaking to local candidates and I am absolutely sure that every SNP candidate will support the action that the Scottish Government is taking to ensure the ferry service is of the standard they expect.”
After Tuesday’s talks, Argyll and Bute Council leader Dick Walsh said: “I welcome these proposals and am urging ministers to ensure clear and short timescales are attached to developing a way forward to ensure a vehicle passenger service on the Dunoon- Gourock route.”
Inverclyde councillor George White added: “We have to hope that he delivers what he’s promised to do. I look forward to the options appraisal, and we will see what’s what.
“I did point out to Mr Neil in the meetings that his government
had taken away ships and replaced them with boats. I do have concerns about timing regarding the AliCat’s replacement - the Coruisk, for example, returns to her Mallaig route in six weeks. But with careful planning there could be vessels available for summer - and even at this early stage we should already be planning for Cowal Games.
“This needs to be fixed for communities on both sides of the water - and the sooner, the better.
Neil Kay, along with long-term campaigner Ronnie Smith, was also invited to attend a meeting with Mr Neil.
He told the Standard: “If they keep to the promises and deadlines, it looks promising.
“The mood of the meeting was very positive - we will see what comes out of it.
“There were differences but the prospect of moving forward with an independent and transparent options appraisal is extremely encouraging.”
With regard to the AliCat replacement, Professor Kay said that it had been pointed out to Mr Neil that there were similar concerns about the Argyll Flyer’s suitability.
He also welcomed Mr Neil’s advice that the Deloitte Touche report was once again available for public viewing on the internet, but advised that it had not been returned to its former website location: “It is like moving a book from a library shelf without telling anyone where you’ve put it - it’s as good as disappeared.”
Dunoon Ferry Action Group also had the opportunity to meet with Mr Neil and welcomed his proposals for a way forward.
However, the group remains determined to continue stating its case and moving forward its dedicated campaign for the restoration of a town centre vehicle link.