Council Leader's weekly column
Posted on 25 Feb 2021
Case numbers have been going down, schools are starting to reopen (I have never seen any child as excited to go to school as my daughter Rosie on Monday morning!) and the vaccination programme is opening up to the next cohort (including my mum and dad who have appointments for this coming Friday). The Covid pandemic has been a crisis like no other, but let’s hope that, almost a year since we entered lockdown for the first time, we are about to finally turn the corner with no further setbacks to come.
When I became Council Leader in the Autumn of 2016, I was immediately confronted with a different kind of crisis - the predatory attempt to take the Arran ferry service to Troon. With an election in the offing, it would have been easy to use the situation to obtain political capital, but my priority was to ensure we, as the campaign stated, kept the ferry A(rdrossan) to B(rodick). Rather than politicise the issue along party lines, we organised a community-led campaign that ignited people on both sides of the ferry service to fight for the service.
Almost four years on from the Minister’s decision to back Ardrossan, I am still holding the line that what is important is not what political points can be scored, but rather that Arran gets the quality ferry service it deserves, served by a modern Harbour at Ardrossan.
It’s not been easy. There has been nothing that has frustrated me more as Council Leader than this protracted saga. There’s been a catalogue of delays to the Ardrossan Harbour project, never mind the situation with the Glen Sannox boat.
Since the Ministerial taskforce was reconvened, after the decision, there has been three different Ministers chair it. With each new one comes a period of reflection, with the new Minister coming to the issue afresh and relying on Transport Scotland officials to get up to speed.
Post decision, new simulations were undertaken on the new ferry entering Ardrossan Harbour that required the marine works to be reviewed to ensure a resilient ferry service for Arran.
A year ago, taskforce meetings were cancelled because of the Covid pandemic, and only reorganised eight months later after I wrote to demand that a meeting be convened.
And for over a year now, the various interested parties have been negotiating legal agreements, all with their own set of lawyers, to agree the final financial deal for the project to advance to design, procurement and then delivery.
But we are now reaching the most critical point yet. The project is effectively ready to go, it just requires the legal agreements to be finalised. However, on the 26th March the official election period will kick in for May’s Scottish Parliament election. That means, from that date, Scottish Government Ministers cannot make new political announcements. If the legal agreements are not signed off, at least in principle, before this date, the project will be delayed again until, at the very least, after the election. At worst, we could have a fourth new Minister, which isn’t entirely unlikely given the number of MSPs who are standing down at these elections, or we could even have a new Government elected, and both would lead to months and months of delay.
It is vital that all parties get the legal agreements finalised and that Minister’s sign them off before the 26th March. It would be wholly unacceptable to let this saga drift further. That’s the point I made at last week’s taskforce meeting and repeated at our Full Council meeting later that day. My role as Council Leader is to stand up for the interests of our local communities and that is what we will do over the coming weeks. Following a vote at Full Council, North Ayrshire Council will be applying pressure on all parties to get the legal agreements signed before the 26th March to allow the project to proceed.
Once the project does proceed to construction, unfortunately the service will be temporarily relocated to Troon. This was a position that we have argued against since the Ardrossan-Troon battle was won in early 2017. We always argued that the default position should be to operate the ferry service from the Irish Berth at Ardrossan during the construction period, an argument that had been agreed by all members of the taskforce. However, like so many things, as the reality comes closer, the impact becomes clearer.
We now know that to operate the ferry service from Ardrossan during the construction works could see a 50% increase in ferry cancellations. It’s not a scenario that is acceptable to the Arran ferry committee, nor to the wider island community demonstrated by 80% of respondents to a recent survey by the ferry committee supporting a temporary move to Troon during the construction phase.
This is disappointing. But the priority must be ensuring a reliable, consistent ferry service for Arran during the project.
Whatever decision was made it would have had an impact on businesses and people on Arran and the mainland. We have been undertaking some economic analysis of the impact and we will be seeking support from the Scottish Government and its agencies to mitigate any negative impact from the short-term move on local businesses, jobs and those who commute from our mainland communities to the island for employment.
It is everyone’s interests that the construction work starts and is completed as soon as possible. One potential benefit of a temporary move to Troon could be that the construction period is shorter without having a ferry service operating from the Harbour at the same time. However, I come back to my earlier point – it serves no one’s interest for this to be delayed until after the Scottish election. Let’s hope minds have been refocused and we get the deal signed next month