Thursday 23 September 2010

CalMac II - the empire strikes back

George Robertson - "We are not well served by this monolith that eats up taxpayers money."

Little did I know when I rattled off a quick blog on "Bob Crow vs The Lords of the Isles" how prescient the headline would be. The Lords of the Isles, or one of them at least, just hit back - against Crow, and me.

Baron Roberston of Port Ellen - better known to most of us as the former Labour Defence Minister George Robertson MP who became Secretary General of Nato - has called to take issue with my blithe suggestion that breaking up Caledonian MacBrayne is "logistical and economic madness".

Quite the opposite, says Lord Robertson down the phone, as he puts me right on why Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited(CMAL) – the part of ferry operation which owns all the ships and piers – should be turned into a new, private not-for-profit company.

The Scottish Government is quite right to look at part-privatising CMAL, thinks Robertson, but he would go much further. He wants the entire CalMac operation examined to see if it can be done better and, if necessary, all the routes opened out to tender .(The story broke in the (paywall) Times but Hamish McDonnell has a good background piece here on the Caledonian Mercury site.)

Robertson declares an interest as a non-executive director of Western Ferries, the private company that competes with Cal Mac on the Gourock-Dunoon route, but he is also a proud Islay man (an Illeach) and thinks that CalMac has always focused on its own needs rather than the communities it sails to.

"We are not well served by this monolith that eats up taxpayers money when all over the world private ferry services are provided efficiently and at profit," says Robertson.

"The subsidy to CalMac is in the region of £130m a year and the company do not make a profit on a single route on the west coast. It is difficult to believe that on the Stornoway and Oban routes that ferry services could not make a profit. Why? Because the producer is put first, not the customer. Every route taken off them would relieve the taxpayer of that subsidy."

Properly regulated private companies can provide the service, he argues and indeed demonstrates on the Gourock to Dunoon route.

As deputy chairman of TNK-BP, the Moscow-based gas and oil joint venture, Robertson has influence that runs from the Urals to the Rinns of Islay. That scope takes in the Scottish Labour party and opinion formers along the west coast with whom he is already pressing his case.

With parties of all hues looking for any savings they can find over the next few years this might be the window of opportunity for Robertson’s radical suggestion that every route be tendered for.

This time saving CalMac might not be the kind of straightforward fight against "sell-off" that Bob Crow would relish.

1 comment:

  1. You'll mind that he wrote the preface to the book celebrating Andrew Banks' achievements in setting up a profitable unsubsidised ferry service from Scotland to Orkney. He clearly has got CalMac and its subsidiary Northlink in his sights.