Our Ferries' Future
By Nick Stuart
Liberal Democrat Response to MP and Council Leader submission to the Union Connectivity Review
We welcome their submission setting out possible approaches to the problem of unregulated lifeline ferry services to the Isle of Wight. Clearly the pandemic and the issues raised have focussed minds on the long existing issues with the missing public service obligations on the private ferry companies. This echoes what the Liberal Democrats and others have being saying for many years.
In November 2020, Liberal Democrat councillor, Andrew Garratt, raised the issue of public service obligation and regulation in a question to the leader of the Isle of Wight Council during the Full Council meeting of November 2020.
Cllr Garratt comments: "It is good to see the MP and leader of the council come on board with those of us who have long called for a review of cross-Solent transport provision, and consideration of options that include public service obligation."
In my own discussions with the two main ferry companies it was clear that their primary consideration was to their investors. Although the companies recognise that those interests are supported if they provide a decent service they still maintain a fare structure where any monetary benefits flow to their investors. However, that is not to fault the general operational effectiveness of the ferry companies whose staff work hard and diligently to provide a service. Indeed, the efforts to look to local suppliers, to provide training and employment, and address environmental impacts and opportunities are to be commended.
We all know the major Ferry companies have been the subject of repeated financial engineering that has loaded debt onto the companies leading to high ferry fares and reduced services. This has been sharply obvious during this pandemic. While this is a problem stemming from the botched privatisation of British Rail in the 1990s we have to recognise the current position and attempt to improve from where we are now.
Isle of Wight Liberal Democrats have repeatedly raised the unique Island issues, of which ferry services are only one, highlighting the contrast with the regulation, public service obligations and direct support that underpin the services for Scottish islands.
To assist this review submission, and discussions the MP and Council leader have with their Conservative Colleagues in Government, we suggest the following.
Firstly consult the Island. The Island public have become resigned to the current position having seen no central or local Government action over many years. However, there are people with serious transport and financial expertise, while others have links to political, business and professional groups that could provide assistance.
Secondly consult with other parts of the Solent region such as Portsmouth and Southampton. They all have an interest in an Isle of Wight that is closely allied with the towns and cities of the Solent region. Having reached out to leaders in those areas I can tell you they are interested in avoiding the isolation seen by Islanders; and keen on improving cross Solent links for business culture, and environmental opportunities.
Note: My colleague and leader of the Liberal Democrat councillors, Andrew Garratt, raised the ferry issue with the leader of the council at the Full Council meeting of November 2020. Video here on YouTube starting at 18m 48s.