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Ferry, Kyle Of Lochalsh

Volume 478: debated on Thursday 14 September 1950

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Sparks.]

10.2 p.m.

I want to draw the attention of the House to the state of the ferry existing between the Kyle of Lochalsh and Kyleaking on the island of Skye. Skye is the largest island in the Outer Hebrides, an island 49 miles long with a coastline of some 300 miles and a population of about 9,000. There are considerable activities in Skye. The main activity is in crofting agriculture, particularly in stockbreeding, but there is some fishing, a distillery, a considerable woollen industry, including spinning and weaving, forestry, new industries in the shape of diatomite mines, and a new hydro-electric scheme. There are also deposits of marble, lime and coral, which might be developed in the future.

There is also a considerable tourist industry today. Many tourist attractions exist in Skye. On the Cuillin hills is some of the finest rock climbing and rambling in the world. There are places of natural beauty which are very varied. Tourists want to come to Skye for many reasons, including historical interest. They want to see where Prince Edward Charles wandered and they want to see, no doubt, some of the places where sanguinary encounters took place between the Clans of Macdonald and MacLeod. All over the world there are many people who want for one reason or another to visit Skye. There is one great drawback to Skye and that is that it is somewhat inaccessible.

There is one car ferry operating between the mainland and Skye today. It is possible to get a few cars on the MacBrayne steamers, but that is a very expensive way of getting a car to Skye, and in the main the majority of cars which come over in thousands every year come by the three ferry boats. This year this ferry has proved totally inadequate for the needs and demands, and has proved itself a disgrace to the British transport system.

Waits for this ferry from 3 to 5 hours have been quite common. I can speak from personal experience, as I had a three-hour wait last Saturday when I was trying to get off Skye. From 24th to 25th August the ferry struck what is now called its "Black Friday." All the boats were unserviceable, with the consequence that there were some 500 cars held up, with all their inhabitants, and that some United States and Canadian passengers missed their connection at Southampton.

I need hardly say what an adverse effect that has on the tourist industry of Skye. It is incalculable. Nearly a thousand years ago a Viking princess lived in the castle the ruins of which still overlook the ferry. I am told that she put a chain across the straits and used to obtain a toll from ships wanting to sail through them. I can imagine the skippers of ships in those days indulging in considerable invective at the delay and expense, but I can assure hon. Members that it would in no way exceed the invective I personally heard from some of the tourists waiting at the ferry recently.

The prices of this ferry are unduly high. For cars up to 12 horse-power the price is 16s. 11d. return, and of more than 12 horse-power 25s. That is extraordinarily high. I submit that the ferry should be considered as part of the highway and should come directly under the Minister of Transport. He should have available funds for this purpose, and should not only reduce those prices but abolish the prices of the ferry altogether. The ferry should be considered as part of the highway, as obtains in the case of the Kylerhea ferry further north. It is possible that an adjoining ferry might be opened again as an alternative to relieve some of the pressure. It is to be hoped that the right hon. Gentleman will do what he can to assist the opening of this alternative ferry when the time comes.

What is really wanted is a larger boat. I am informed that before we can get it we must have an improved slip at the Kyle of Lochalsh. In March my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. J. MacLeod) asked the Minister of Transport about this slip. The right hon. Gentleman replied that he hoped that the work would start in three or four months' time. Clearly, that hope has not been fulfilled, because the work has not started yet. I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman when he thinks the work will start.

I would like to come on to another point in connection with this ferry. I have had many complaints about discourtesy on the part of those who operate it. I personally have not experienced this discourtesy, but I have had so many complaints that I cannot very well ignore them. Users of the ferry complain of general discourteous treatment, and a kind of "take it or leave it" attitude. Admittedly, it is a question of take it or leave it, because there is no other way of getting to Skye, but if you leave it you just do not get on to the island. The ferry personnel operate under difficulties sometimes, but there is no excuse for discourtesy from those who have to operate a public service of any kind. There is every reason why we should try to extend courtesy to visitors. Giving them an impression of welcome and making them feel at home would be in every way advantageous. With a certain amount of direction and supervision this could be achieved.

The spirit of taking part in something really worth while could be imbued in the people who operate the ferry. If we are to make a success of our tourist industry in Scotland we must make visitors feel welcome and at home and we must do what we can to lessen the misfortunes of travel which occur from time to time. I understand that there were considerable difficulties when the 500 cars were held up over-night, and from reports which I have heard everything was not done to lessen the misfortunes of those travellers at the time.

I would emphasise to the right hon. Gentleman that the future success of the tourist industry in Skye depends upon this ferry from the Kyle of Lochalsh and I urge him to do all he can to improve the facilities there to make life easier for the inhabitants, to encourage life and industry on the island and to enable us to take advantage of the opportunities in tourist industry which Skye undoubtedly possesses.

10.11 p.m.

I hope we shall not find tourists going to Skye to see any further battles between the MacLeods and the Macdonalds. I have been raising this question ever since I entered the House of Commons, in 1945. Very little has been done since that time though I have raised the matter both in the House and outside. I admit that a covered boat has been put on and that that made some improvement but, as my noble Friend the Member for Inverness (Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton) said, last March I was assured that the Minister hoped that something would be done within three or four months.

In improving the slipway of a ferry one has to consider weather conditions. The work can only be done at a time when it is bound to interfere to a certain extent with tourist traffic. We are now getting towards the autumn and the winter again, and I suppose the excuse will be, "We cannot start until weather conditions improve." So it goes on. I hope that tonight the Minister will let us know exactly when the improvements to the slipway will be made.

I have seen the plans of the new slipway. I criticise them in that insufficient parking space is provided. I hope that we shall be able to raise criticisms of these plans. If we are to make a job of this ferry why not make a really good job of it while we are about it? Yesterday the Minister of State for Economic Affairs said this, which is of some interest:
"It would be the height of folly to plan for a big increase in our military equipment while ignoring as war potential an efficient and modern transport system."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th September, 1950; Vol. 478, c. 1147.]
I could not agree with him more.

It is because of the total lack of a modem transport system in the Highlands of Scotland, particularly the Western Highlands, that I speak tonight. I hope that at least this link will be improved. It will serve a dual purpose. My noble Friend the Member for Inverness talked about the tourist industry. Next year we are having the Festival of Britain. We are making plans to attract more and more tourists to Britain, including Scotland and particularly the Highlands, and if the ferry is not improved before next year we shall have grievances similar to the one mentioned by my noble Friend. The dual purpose is this, that in peacetime we shall be able to increase and develop the tourist industry and the value in war-time is inestimable.

For strategic reasons we should improve our communications in the Western Highlands. In my own constituency, in the First World War, Inver-gordon played a big part and, in the last war, Aultbea, and I know of some of the difficulties that were experienced in carrying heavy equipment up to these regions, so it is an important factor. For both these reasons an improved modern transport system in the Western Highlands can play an important national part and it is in the national interest that I hope the transport system in the Western Highlands will be improved.

10.16 p.m.

I was interested to hear the noble Lord the Member for Inverness (Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton) describe the beauty and activities of Skye, because the only time I crossed by this ferry I could see very little. However, I do not wish to minimise the importance of the subject raised tonight. I was particularly interested when the noble Lord suggested that the ferries and the crossing of waterways should be just as much the responsibility of a Minister of Transport as the construction and the maintenance of the highway itself.

I suppose Ministers are never really anxious to accept greater responsibilities, but there is a great deal of force in that point because it has always struck me as being a particular weakness of this country that, directly we come across a comparatively small waterway, our transport facilities appear at once to lapse into more or less medieval conditions. Quite early in my own administration—I think in May, 1946—I realised how limited were the powers of the Minister with regard to ferries and the crossing of waterways. In fact, the powers were practically non-existent.

Hon. Members will recollect that I appointed a Ferries Committee, which reported in December, 1947. A few months later I stated in the House that the Government accepted, in the main, the recommendations of that Committee. Indeed, the noble Lord and hon. Members may be interested to know that at present I am engaged in drafting proposals, and I hope that time will be found to carry them into law, because I feel it would be a good thing if the Ministry of Transport could have greater responsibility in relation to our ferries and waterway crossings.

That, however, is not the position at present. With regard to ferries, generally speaking the highway authorities have little power or influence. I could quote to the two hon. Members who have spoken cases of other ferries which carry much greater day to day commercial and other traffic across important waterways that are even more in need of being dealt with than the ferry across the Kyle of Lochalsh. But because there are worse examples, I do not think that that interferes with the necessity for me to deal with this proposal. It must be borne in mind when dealing with an island that when anything happens to the ferry there is often no other form of transport.

As the two hon. Members who have spoken have admitted, this is not a case simply of a negative attitude towards a proposal. The British Transport Commission having taken over the L.M.S. undertaking and the existing ferry, have indicated to me that when the other facilities—namely, adequate slipways—are provided, they will consider constructing a type of ferry the capacity of which, both for motor cars and passengers, would probably make a material difference. In view of that undertaking, my Department are accepting responsibility for building a proper slipway which could accommodate such a vessel.

The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. J. MacLeod) has complained of the delay of a few months. I admit that. Nevertheless, the detailed plans have been prepared by the consultants and negotiations are taking place with all the interests concerned. I gathered from the hon. Member that he would like to inspect the plans and express his opinion upon them, but if everybody is to do that, the necessary work would certainly not be expedited. I assure the hon. Member that we expect to get through these negotiations in a reasonable time. The plans for the slipway represent a considerable improvement on the present situation, and if the Transport Commission eventually produce their new type of vessel, there are prospects of considerable improvement.

One cannot blame the Transport Com-mision for the existing state of affairs. They had to take over the services as they existed. There is a good deal of substance in the Commission's case that it is not possible for them to run a different type of vessel until an entirely new slipway has been constructed which will permit of its operation.

Can the Minister give some idea of the type of vessel which could use the proposed slipway?

I cannot at this stage. No doubt later, either through myself or direct from the Commission, hon. Members can obtain whatever information is available. The questions of capacity and of providing a floating platform will have been gone into. The whole intention is to build a slipway which will enable traffic to be handled at all tides. One of the existing difficulties, I understand, is that at certain times, for two or three hours, ferries cannot operate when the tide is exceptionally low. The examinations now being undertaken will ensure that when the slipway is built, the ferry can operate at all states of the tide.

Should not the craft be built concurrently with the slipway? is there any point in going ahead with the long job of building the slipway and leaving the question of the craft until that is completed? In this way, the work will take two or three years longer.

The proposals represent a considerable advance by the Transport Commission. There are many similar instances throughout the country. In this case, at least the Commission are going to the expense of building a new craft, and until the plans are settled I can quite understand that they will not commit themselves. Hon. Members ought to be well satisfied that this problem is being solved and not adopt the arbitrary attitude that everything else must be set aside for the purpose of making progress in this case.

Allegations have been made of discourtesy on the part of the staff. One often gets statements of that description but I observed that the noble Lord indicated that this has not been his experience. In these matters, particularly in regard to public corporations, we should always convey to people when they pass on these general allegations to hon. Members, that when the incident occurs they ought to communicate with the proper authorities. We could never take any action in regard to a vague general allegation, but if people would quote such an incident on the occasion and put the facts in writing, the responsible management could take action. When we get a general statement, backed by no information, no management can take action.

I hope that as a result of the statement I have made the two hon. Members interested in this matter will realise that there is practical hope of realising what they desire in the not too distant future.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-seven Minutes past Ten o'Clock.