Arran Ferry Action Group Annual General Meeting

Minutes of the public meeting held at 2pm at the Ormidale Pavilion, Brodick, on Saturday 26th November 2022

Present: Sally Campbell, Sam Bourne, John Ford, Chris Attkins, Jan Attkins, Ian Relf, Peter Mackay, Alastair Bilsland, Douglas Bilsland, John Campbell, Walter Brown, Carol Davis, Barbara Paulucy, David Hutchison, Jim Climie, Bill Calderwood, Bob Haddow, Robert Cumming.

Apologies: Barb Taub, Sharon Shenhav, Gavin Fulton, David Barker, Douglas Coulter.

Our constitution specifying that the quorum for general meetings is twenty, we were two people short. It was decided to proceed with the meeting, deferring approvals and re-election of the committee until a later date.

1. Welcome and Introductions

Sally thanked those present for turning out on a foul day, with ferries cancelled and no port of refuge in sight. Three years since its formation, she reminded everyone why the Arran Ferry Action Group came into being, with over 1,000 supporters asking us to address ferry service reliability and resilience, ships and harbours fit for purpose, and a reliable port of refuge. To achieve these objectives the Group had, and would continue, to lobby those in positions of responsibility, demanding that our lifeline service meets the needs of our community. She reported widespread public anxiety about getting booked on the ferry, whether the vessel would sail, and whether they would get home again. This required appropriate physical infrastructure, and effective and efficient operational policies and procedures. There was an urgent need for a strategic plan to coordinate these elements.

Sally paid tribute to the frontline staff at CalMac, who continued to do their best in difficult circumstances, exacerbated by declining infrastructure, such as the loss of island fuel storage, which has put additional pressure on staff.

Sally introduced the committee members present, acknowledging their dogged determination.

2. Minutes from 2021 AGM

These had been published on our website and nobody asked to refer to a printed copy. These were proposed and seconded as an accurate record by John Campbell and John Ford respectively. There were no matters arising.

3. Chairman’s Report

Sam stated that 2022 had been a very busy year for the Arran Ferry Action Group. He explained that we set out a strategy in late 2021 to build our media presence to drive ferry-related matters up the priority list at Holyrood, mindful of the balance between raising the issues and doing reputational damage to the Island. We had also planned to engage with groups from other islands to establish a network-wide voice.

Winter 2021-Spring 2022 saw some of the most significant disruption on the principal Ardrossan- Brodick route — and across the network — in living memory. For example, in January and February 2022, there was only ONE day of normal service between Ardrossan and Brodick.

Vessel overhauls saw significant delays, with emergent works delaying vessels returning to service and creating significant knock-on effects throughout the network. CalMac had struggled with the effects of an Omicron COVID wave at a similar period, with significant levels of staff absence. Combined with a period of extreme weather, the disruption had been significant.

Deteriorating infrastructure at Ardrossan, particularly the fenders, had resulted in a 75% cancellation rate for the 07:00 service — only 1 in 4 operated over a period of months.

Faced with massive disruption from Christmas onwards, we began engaging with various media outlets to raise awareness of the issues and highlight the direct socio-economic impacts. Over a period of a few weeks, we saw front page stories on The Herald, including many in-depth articles covering the impacts on health, hospitality and essential supplies such as food and fuel. We had continued to work with our contacts at The Herald to keep the west-Scotland focus on the network-wide issues. Throughout that period we had also engaged heavily with other national titles such as The Scotsman, Daily Record, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Sunday Post, and even The Sun. Local press such as the Arran Banner and Ardrossan Herald had also been supportive in highlighting the problems. These feature frequently on digital platforms such as BBC, STV, Herald, Scotsman, with relevant links through social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Through this print and digital media effort, we had gained interest from TV News and Features teams. This had continued all year, with contributions to STV News, BBC Scotland News, BBC Reporting Scotland, BBC Scotland’s ‘The Nine’, ‘The Seven’, BBC Radio Scotland’s ‘Good Morning Scotland’ and ‘Drive Time’. We had also featured on national UK TV News on BBC Six and Ten O’Clock News, and ITV News.

The profile gained through being able to articulate the direct impacts of the disruption, while proposing practical solutions, had created interest with various features producers. Principal among these was the BBC Scotland Disclosure investigation into the Ferguson Marine Ferry Fiasco. Along with other island groups from Mull & Harris, the Arran Ferry Action Group had been heavily involved in briefing the producers to lay the groundwork for the investigation into the impacts of the delayed delivery of the ferries. The Group had also assisted the BBC Countryfile team with their investigative piece.

Sam reiterated that we were always extremely mindful of the balance to strike between raising the issues, highlighting the problems, and causing reputational damage to the island economy. We always carefully assessed the possible outcomes of various proposed actions, asking whether NOT raising an issue was likely to cause greater harm over the longer term. He explained that we believed we had reached a critical point last year where, had we not taken decisive action, the prolonged damage to the island economy would have been so serious there could have been little left to salvage. He accepted that some people may have taken a different view.

Political Pressure
Sam explained that the problems with our lifeline ferry service would not be solved by media coverage alone, requiring political solutions at Holyrood. Previously we had built good links with Regional member Jamie Greene MSP, and had further expanded our links this year to include other Regional members Katy Clark MSP, Neil Bibby MSP (also Labour Shadow Transport Minister), and Paul O’Kane MSP. We had furthered our connections to include Conservative Shadow Transport Minister Graham Simpson MSP, engaging regularly with these MSPs on a wide range of ferry-related matters. Through the summer recess, Katy, Paul, Neil, & Graham had all visited Arran and held meetings with us. Sam expressed regret that Arran’s constituency MSP continued to refuse our requests to engage in dialogue.

This year we had finally managed to engage with the new Transport Minister, Jenny Gilruth MSP, holding a number of meetings and briefings. This had been a marked improvement over her predecessors in the role and we very much welcomed the spirit and tone of our engagements thus far. We had been able to talk freely and openly with Ms Gilruth, who was listening, and clearly asking questions of her Transport Scotland team.

In June we had been invited to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament Net Zero, Energy & Transport Committee as part of the fact finding for their Inquiry into a Sustainable Ferry Service for

Scotland. This had proved an excellent opportunity to join with representatives from across the CalMac and Northlink Network to demonstrate the depth and extent of the issues, and also propose practical solutions.

Through repeated pressure from ourselves and many other groups, the long-awaited Project Neptune had been published. This study lays out proposed alternatives to the current tripartite relationship between Transport Scotland, CMAL and CalMac. We hope that its core recommendations are adopted.

In May, Sam had attended a seminar at Strathclyde University on the untapped potential of Medium-Speed Ro-Pax Catamarans for the Scottish Ferry Fleet. A convincing case was presented by Dr Stuart Ballantyne, Prof Alf Baird, and Prof Vassalos on the economic, operational and safety advantages of these vessels. It was well attended, including Mr Drummond and Mr McColl.

Through spring and early summer we began to build links with other islands, with an aim to create a proper network-wide body. Strong links with Mull and Harris have been created, along with Cumbrae and Bute. We hope this will help create the network-wide body to properly represent the islands.

Our links with Mull brought about a two-island survey on a proposed ticketing system in May. The ‘Samso survey’ saw 700+ responses from each island, with 90%+ support for the proposal. This system is not about ‘priority’; it is about balancing the fundamentally differing profiles between those who can book months in advance, and those who need to book at much shorter notice. It proposes an adjustable share of each sailing for short notice bookings by residents and other frequent travellers. We continue to promote this solution that will trial next summer on Mull.

We have long argued for additional vessels to be added to the fleet to add capacity in this difficult period, pushing for the charter or purchase of the MV Pentalina. This is acknowledged by Transport Scotland, CMAL, and CalMac as the ONLY suitable and currently available vessel. In Summer 2021, she completed berthing trials. Since then, no agreement has been reached. We now understand that it would take at least 6 months for her to enter service, even if a deal was concluded today. Clearly this is not good enough and one has to ask how long Transport Scotland will sit on their hands on this matter. Last winter saw chaos across the network. Even CalMac are warning this winter is highly likely to be even worse.

The disastrous procurement of 801/802 continues. Hull 801 is now due for delivery by end of Q2 2023. We are now being told that Hull 802 may also be destined to serve the Arran route, after a 10-year U-turn on the new vessel plan for the Uig Triangle. That in itself is a huge win for the Western Isles. Although that plan will then build more capacity for Arran, it may be a mixed blessing with two ‘sister’ ships operating the route.

Arran Ferry Action Group clearly identified the delivery of 801 and the consequent diversion to Troon as a significant risk to the island economy. The trigger for the diversion is the delivery of 801. That is still a moving target. We still do not know when the diversion will start, what the timetable will look like, and also how long the diversion will last. Current estimates put the return to Ardrossan as Summer 2025 at the earliest — a full 10 years since the orders were placed for the ill-fated 801/802 pair.

The Ardrossan Harbour project appears to be dead in the water. Despite our best efforts (including being referenced as a stakeholder by the First Minister!) we have been unable to gain any insight into what is happening with that project. The silence is very concerning. For example, we know a Task Force meeting took place on 28th June. No minutes have been published for that meeting, despite it being nearly 5 months ago. There has been no subsequent meeting. That does not indicate a project that is driving ahead. Indeed, the last public comment from any member of the task force was K Gibson MSP in the Holyrood chamber accusing Peel Ports of ‘intransigence’ in the negotiations. That is unlikely to bring a difficult deal to a positive conclusion. We will continue to pressure the Task Force to provide updates to the Island Community.

ABP Troon, on the other hand, have been extremely open. The works to prepare the berth were completed in the summer. ABP Troon Port Manager gave Arran Ferry Action Group a full guided tour of the facility recently and continues to provide updates and information as required. That gives a level of confidence going forward that things are progressing. We will continue to push for clarity on plans and timings.

North Ayrshire Council carried out a consultation on the new Ardrossan terminal building early in the year. Arran Ferry Action Group representatives spent considerable time discussing the issues with the Brodick terminal, and worked to ensure they would not be repeated at Ardrossan. Many comments were taken onboard, however there is still work to be done on the plans.

CalMac carried out their long-awaited timetable consultation in August. Arran Ferry Action Group representatives spent appreciable time discussing the proposal with reps from Transport Scotland, CalMac, CMAL etc. Some of the options presented were effectively unviable for the island economy and we have followed up with various other proposals and questions, but have not received much feedback since. We hope to re-engage with this vital process. We have developed our own Timetable option, drawing together the best elements of some of the presented options, and based on a practical, flexible, two-boat service.

Throughout the year we have continued to post relevant information, articles, updates, and stories on our website and through our Facebook page. These have proved to be far reaching, with over 5,000 engagements on key stories. That is significant reach. We will endeavour to continue to keep the pages updated and relevant.

Sam recorded his thanks to the committee for their tireless efforts and support. He noted that our website had become a vital resource, clocking up over 100,000 engagements! He concluded by thanking our supporters, who motivate us to continue pushing the core issues facing our lifeline ferry service and our island, in what can sometimes feel like a thankless task.

Douglas Bilsland asked Sam why he had not mentioned the Isle of Arran Ferry Committee in his report. Sam explained that we had very little communication with them. Sally pointed out that our remit was to represent the island community, which was why we engaged with the media, to give them a voice.

4. Secretary’s Summary

Chris began by paying tribute to our chairman, who had worked so diligently throughout the year, researching and writing technical reports, liaising with other experts, and keeping everyone so well informed. Sam was applauded by those present.

Chris then provided some statistics. The number of our supporters had remained steady since the formation of the Action Group, but the number of visits to our website had doubled over the last year. Hundreds of views of key posts indicated widespread interest in the issues we publicised.

We were now also publishing proposals and views from islanders and anyone was welcome to contribute. Any constructive articles would be published. Chris emphasised that we see our role as being constructive, polite and courteous in order to maintain positive relations with those with whom we communicate. By publishing correspondence with officials, others can challenge their policies and decisions.

With no political affiliation or bias, we have established good relationships with politicians of all parties. Minutes of our meetings are published promptly, and the opinions of our supporters are often sought, either by newsletters or online questionnaires. These attract a good response. Any time we can submit practical, cost-saving solutions, we are quick to do so.

Chris had now dealt with over 8,000 e-mails, over 1,000 both in and out during the last year, excluding the 1,000 personalised newsletters and updates that are periodically sent to our supporters. Social media posts continued to reach thousands of people, and while critical feedback could be hard to deal with, this channel of communication helped us stay in tune with the community. Chris again paid tribute to the Arran Banner for its support throughout the year, helping to inform those not online.

Referring to the Group’s strategy of mainstream media presence, the secretary reiterated the delicate balance to be struck between highlighting problems and damaging the island’s reputation. Declaring his ownership of two accommodation businesses, from personal experience he clarified that any reputational damage was not primarily from the media, but from guests’ encountering so many ferry cancellations, disruptions and warnings. Holding up graphics collated from CalMac’s own App, he asked how any visitor could have confidence in travelling when faced with so little certainty. Guests cancelling their bookings cited problems with booking ferry travel as the reason, never media stories. Having promoted Arran as an easily accessible island for twenty years, Chris said it was heartbreaking these days to have to warn guests in advance of the difficulties they were likely to face in booking their ferry travel. He concluded by sharing, with permission, the Auchrannie Resort’s write-off of £510,000 in their current trading year to date. As the island’s largest accommodation business and largest employer, this was a significant threat to the economic viability of Arran, especially since all island businesses are proportionately affected. This was our justification for maintaining media interest, which has proven far more effective than a gaggle of pensioners waving placards outside Holyrood.

5. Treasurer’s Report

John had distributed printed copies of the Group’s audited accounts to attendees before the meeting started, summarising the previous accounting year up to May 2021 for comparison, the current year to May 2022, and subsequent transactions to date. He explained that our income comes primarily from supporters’ donations, with committee members also contributing personally. Sale of WTF T-shirts had generated a modest profit, however, with ongoing costs of our digital platform and expenses associated with meeting MSPs, surveys, room hire and advertising, it had been decided to appeal to our supporters for further funds. This had resulted in magnificent contributions totalling £1,500 which had all been personally acknowledged. Robert Cumming asked how those wishing to contribute might do so. John directed them to our website where a ‘Contribute’ button brings up further details.

6. Re-election of Committee

Sally explained that, due to being inquorate, this procedure would need to be conducted online. However, she confirmed that all eight current committee members were willing to continue standing, subject to re-election. She invited anyone interested in joining the committee to let us know. She again thanked the serving committee members.

7. Questions & Answers

Douglas Bilsland asked whether the committee would be inclined to do more if additional funding was available. The feasibility study into a community-run ferry service, currently being undertaken on Mull with HIE support, was cited as an example by Robert Cumming. Sam suggested further consideration of de-bundling the CalMac contract, proposed as a core recommendation in the Scottish government’s Project Neptune report. This would enable smaller companies and/or community interest groups to bid for parts of the network contract. Interest had recently been expressed by both Peatland Ferries and Western Ferries. He warned there would be a lot of difficulties to overcome and suggested that the Mull study should be completed first to highlight these challenges and assess the viability of a different arrangement.

Bob Haddow stated that state subsidies were not available to private operators. Sally responded that if enough voices were in accord, policy and decisions could be changed. Sam pointed out that the Net Zero enquiry seeks to establish what vessel types are sustainable and that far more efficient vessels, ie catamarans, are available and clearly preferable, which could reduce or remove the need for subsidy. Sally explained the importance of educating MSPs about the practical issues and consequences for island travellers of decisions taken at Holyrood. Bob felt that RET prevented other operators from bidding for routes and suggested it be scrapped. Sam pointed out that without RET, some routes would be altogether unviable.

Robert Cumming asked where the consideration of catamarans was being stopped. Bob Haddow suggested one individual within CMAL. Sally reiterated that by more people and organisations raising the issue and challenging the status quo, more constructive decisions would be taken. It was therefore essential to forge constructive links with third parties to strengthen the force of opinion. She suggested that imminent budgetary restraint might focus more attention on the demonstrable efficiencies of catamarans. Sam regretted the current absence of a ferry replacement strategy. Vessels were instead being replaced piecemeal, with short-term changes of deployment according to circumstances and inevitably increased costs.

Sally assured those present that for as long as our supporters believed the Arran Ferry Action Group could play a constructive part in improving the resilience and reliability of our lifeline ferry service, we would continue to pursue these ends. Sam warned of probable disruption this winter, due to ongoing infrastructure issues at Ardrossan and weather implications, followed by relocation to Troon, with longer crossing times and therefore inevitably fewer sailings once the new vessel comes into service. Capacity is already constrained and will become a more serious issue, jeopardising Arran’s economy for the next three years.

Jim Climie asked about the shuttle bus service at Troon. He was concerned about their suitability and speed of transfer to facilitate timely turnaround, particularly at peak travel times. He expressed concern about wheelchair users. Sam reminded everyone that we had asked 75 specific questions earlier in the year and received few concrete answers. He agreed that attention to simple logistical issues such as this would make or break the satisfactory diversion to Troon.
The secretary would seek assurances from CalMac, whom he had been told were taking responsibility for buses.

John emphasised the importance of the Lochranza route to the Kintyre peninsula, pointing out that in terms of travelling time, a trip to Campbeltown, or even Oban compares favourably with Troon.

8. Summary

Sally thanked those who had raised issues and assured them we would pursue satisfactory answers. She spoke again of the deleterious effects on our essential services caused by ferry failures, resulting in public fear and anxiety causing people to consider leaving the island. She thanked everyone for attending and encouraged them to write to MSPs and demand answers.