The Scottish Government is to “explore” the possibility of directly awarding the ferry contract for the country’s west coast to CalMac.
Transport minister Fiona Hyslop informed MSPs of the plan, which will see officials undertake due diligence ahead of a decision next summer.
Government-owned CalMac currently runs the services, but has faced criticism for its reliability in recent years, with an ageing fleet repeatedly taken out of service for maintenance.
Under the plan, the current contract for the Clyde and Hebrides routes would not be subject to the usual tendering process ahead of its expiry next autumn, with the Scottish Government instead opting to hand it directly to CalMac.
The minister told Holyrood on Thursday: “I want to be clear that before any final decision is taken, a due diligence process will establish the feasibility of that approach from a financial, operational and legal perspective in terms of value and importance to our island communities.
“I want to be absolutely clear – if we ultimately decide on a direct award, then under no circumstances would that simply mean business as usual.
“Going down a direct award route would help change the ethos of the service by shifting the focus from a commercial arrangement to a model more focused on the delivery of a public service.”
The award, Ms Hyslop said, would result in a “more agile approach to drive service improvements”.
Last week, the minister told MSPs she believed the “tripartite” system for ferries in the west of Scotland – which brings together CalMac, infrastructure body CMAL and Transport Scotland to run services – should change.
Addressing the possibility of a merger of bodies, she said she was not “taking any immediate decision” on the issue, pressing the organisations to “focus on delivery”.
The minister added the Northern isles ferry contract, which is due to end in 2028, will go out to tender and will not be subject to a direct award.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union, welcomed the announcement.
“This a step in the right direction for the Clyde and Hebrides contract and RMT welcome the decision to explore a direct award, in line with the recommendation of the cross-party Net Zero Energy and Transport Committee,” he said.
“A long-term direct award would bring much-needed stability and certainty to workers and passengers on CalMac-operated routes and protect public investment.
“We will be meeting the transport minister, Fiona Hyslop, to argue that the next step should be a coherent and sustainable ferry plan underpinned by a permanently publicly-owned ‘people’s CalMac’ which has the confidence of ferry passengers, workers and communities alike.”
Mr Lynch added his union would be opposed to the introduction of privately-operated ferry routes outside the control of CalMac and voiced disappointment that the Northern isles contract would not be subject to a direct award.
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