Visitors to Scotland are often told that the Kyles and Western Isles ‘belong’ to Macbraynes the ferry operator. However, converging issues about EU rules, public ownership and transport procurement have propelled the debate about Scotland’s ferry services to the front of the politics for the May Scottish Parliament election. Reflections in wider debates about Brexit, privatisation, transport regulation and public funding make the ferry debate symbolic of several key issues in the May election. Its value to the political parties is that they can use it to reinforce their credentials as champions of vulnerable communities, transport workers’ rights, reduced travel costs, and standing up to Europe.
In March, the publicly owned ferry operator Calmac, and Serco the operator of the ferries to the Northern Isles, submitted their bids to run the Clyde and Hebridean ferry services under a £1bn contract from the Scottish Government. Labour has promised to halt the current process “We will fight to keep CalMac in public hands and immediately suspend the tendering process that could see these lifeline ferry services privatised.” The SNP say “There are no plans to privatise these services – they will remain under public control through Scottish Ministers under the terms of any new contract. The public service contract being tendered is to operate lifeline services on behalf of the Scottish Government.”
This debate has echoes across transport procurement. Should Brussels, Edinburgh, local transport authorities, transport operators or local communities control transport? If the goal is to achieve efficient governance frameworks that meet the needs of all of these levels of governance, then it is hard to find anyone who thinks this is being achieved at present for buses, railways or ferries. The current processes seem to disable everyone involved when what is needed are administrative frameworks that bring out the best in everyone.
For the ferries the EU position seems to have been misrepresented. The requirement to introduce some competition or market testing to the ferry market has been used as an excuse to design a competition that could lead to radical change in the values of the operator. However this was probably not the intention of the Scottish Government who probably thought they were responding to outside pressures with the nearest they could find to the status quo. Whether the mode of transport is rail, bus or ferry, inflexible government contacts constrain bottom up improvements and innovations. The much needed flexible dynamic partnerships between government and operators have proved to be elusive over many years so competition for a clearly defined market could be argued to be the least bad option.
However the role of government is changing. Whatever happens in May’s Scottish Parliament election convening in court looks increasingly likely. More regulation of industry will be faced with opposition from operators who in many cases have built the current market, including Calmac’s ferry services. If Government grabs chunks of the transport market and then sells it off, this is no different to the hated land ownership policies that have resulted in only a handful of landowners owning most of Scotland.
Transport in the 21st century is very complicated for media friendly political campaigns. However people recognise social failure when they see it. If Scotland’s transport is aggressively controlled by any one organisation the rich capabililities of people, staff, transport operators, and good governance will all be undermined. Social transport issues related to protecting vulnerable communities, and employment issues in a changing industry are coming to the fore in the Scottish parliament election. That can only be helpful for the millions of people who use transport and work in the industry, as it will help to create political pressure to distribute the power to improve transport to those best able to make the changes.