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Direct Ferry Links: Scotland and Mainland Europe

Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 12 January 2022

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current guidance from the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the parliamentary estate, and to give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.

I will call Kenny MacAskill to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30 minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered direct ferry links between Scotland and mainland Europe.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

Connectivity is critical, if not king, in the 21st century. As coronavirus has shown, telecommunications are vital, allowing for home working and for businesses to operate, even during lockdowns. Zoom and Teams have come to the fore, even in this House, and have proven essential for many, but other, more established, physical methods of connectivity are equally vital.

Road, rail and air have shown how essential they are in a globalised world, and have been supported by Governments both sides of the border, even before coronavirus struck. Yet there is one major aspect of connectivity where Scotland has been left high and dry: direct ferry links to mainland Europe. It is not just a long-standing issue, but a long-standing omission. It was a major gap even before the impacts of coronavirus and Brexit, which have simply compounded the existing need.

Road freight has been hit hard, through driver absence and customs nightmares, let alone additional bureaucracy. Trade, which could have gone swiftly and with ease from a safe Scottish harbour, has been struggling to access routes south and, even then, facing delays and backlogs at English ports. The spectre of arterial routes becoming truck parks as lorries backed up and loads rotted in the back would be laughable if it were not so tragic.

At the same time, the cost of fuel has rocketed. Not only have there been challenges with fuel shortages, but profitability has reduced through having to trunk our goods to ports a considerable distance south, whether to the Tyne or Humber—or even far beyond to the channel ports. The former are a considerable distance, but the latter, especially for seafood or other perishable items, already meant an absurd journey, and it is one that has been made so much worse through additional delays and impediments.

There is yet another compelling reason for investing in maritime links, beyond the connectivity they provide. Despite COP26 taking place in Glasgow, little thought has been given to improving maritime links because of their environmental benefit. There are issues with maritime fuel, and action to address that—whether through reducing the pollution from marine diesel or exploring alternative fuels, such as batteries—is essential. However, it is still better for our environment to load freight aboard one ship than to have dozens, if not hundreds, of lorries struggling down congested roads.

These risks were known to be looming on the horizon, as were the opportunities that would be beneficial economically, socially and environmentally. It is not as if many of these events were not foreseeable, even for those who only foresaw sunny uplands for Brexit. Customs delays were always going to kick in and other nations, such as Ireland, prepared, but shamefully that was not done in Scotland, by either the Scottish or UK Governments. As a result, many businesses have paid a heavy price.

It is not as if Scotland lacks access to the seas or is devoid of ports. The nation has the facilities and, historically, the links. Scotland was always linked by sea routes to Europe, which continued even when the major trade moved to the west coast and the Atlantic. Pantiles, on the roofs of many homes in my East Lothian constituency, testify to links with the low countries. Along the shores of the Forth and the port of Leith, where I was born, street names are equally redolent: Baltic, Cadiz and Hamburg, although that name was changed to Hamburgh in the first world war.

More recently, the superfast service that sailed from Rosyth to Zeebrugge was enjoyed by many, benefiting both trade and tourism. That port and the facilities constructed for the ro-ro services still exist. Despite the valiant efforts of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), it currently serves as a safe harbour for berthed covid cruise ships with the ro-ro infrastructure moribund, rather than providing a major link for Scottish trade and tourism. There are other options, including in existing harbours and in the potential for a new port at Cockenzie in my own constituency.

The historic links and the infrastructure remain, so why has there been no progress in launching routes over past years when they would have been welcomed, or now, when they are essential? It is not as if the maritime sector globally, let alone in Europe, has been idle. Other nations have acted, and so must Scotland. Ireland, seeing the problems that Brexit would bring, prepared and added significantly to the services already operating.

The hon. Member mentioned exports and trade. Is it not time that we had a substantial maritime support policy from the UK Government to support trade post Brexit, as he outlined is the case in Ireland? The low countries, which he also mentioned, have a direct support package to increase trade post Brexit.

I think that is something that should be done by the UK Government, but, as I will go on to say, transport—certainly maritime transport—is largely devolved, which is why my demands are not simply to the UK Government, but to the Scottish Government.

As I was saying, despite distance and sail times being longer, Ireland ensured alternatives to the land bridge that was the previous favoured route for many. That meant sailing to a port in Scotland, Wales or England and then journeying on via the UK motorway network to the channel ports. Not for them a Boris bridge or any other delusional nonsense. Instead, Ireland arranged to sail direct to Europe. Direct freight routes were expanded and passenger services increased, thus avoiding customs backlogs, reducing road journeys, avoiding the difficulties of driver absences through illness or self-isolation, and making environmental gains.

In Ireland, three main operators now offer passenger services. Brittany Ferries, Irish Ferries and Stena Line offer services, with some sailing up to five times a week from Cork, Dublin and Rosslare, heading to Roscoff, Bilbao and Cherbourg, ensuring access to their principal markets and allowing for inbound as well as outbound tourism. Those are not the only routes available across the Irish sea to access Europe. Other services provide for freight only, whether for vehicles with haulage or unaccompanied freight. Since Brexit, services and routes have increased, allowing further options and avoiding the problems that have arisen, especially at the channel ports.

Scotland and Ireland have similar sized populations, and both are dependent on trade and tourism. For both countries, Europe is a big and major market. In several instances, Ireland is a direct competitor, yet Irish maritime links are growing almost exponentially, and Scotland remains tied up in port with increasing paperwork. It is not only Ireland that has been acting to increase maritime links. Countries across Europe have been taking action to address the challenges that they faced—even if not the Brexit-imposed customs debacle—allowing for new opportunities for trade and tourism.

Many have accessed funding from the EU, but all have been financially assisted by government to develop. A tender has been issued to re-establish a ferry link between Greece and Cyprus. Support funding of €5.5 million is being provided for a three-year service, with the possibility of an extension beyond. Other nations have acted similarly. Stockholm in Sweden to Rostock in Germany is to begin this spring. Yes, it is having a state subsidy, but it is saving on CO2 and other costs—and it is not just in the Baltic, but in the North sea, as a Norway to Netherlands service is to commence in April.

So why are we devoid of action in Scotland? Transport is largely devolved, and therefore much of the failure to date and, indeed, the action that needs to be taken rests with the Scottish Government. They have failed to show any sign of urgency, let alone any sign of ambition for the country. Instead, they have remained thirled to a free market dogma that might be expected of London, but which could and should be rejected by an Administration with Scotland’s interests at heart. Although a four-nations approach may have merit in aspects of health policy, with ferries it leaves Scotland isolated, sucking everything into the ports in England and leaving Scotland marooned.

Does my hon. Friend share my deep regret that a comparative drop in the ocean of investment would be sufficient to move this project forward? The reluctance of the Scottish Government to do so undermines Scotland’s case for independence and the valiant work and efforts of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman).

I absolutely commend the efforts of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) that it is a very modest investment that would have significant returns.

However, the UK Government cannot absolve themselves of blame. Their free market dogma has privatised critical infrastructure such as ports, although that is a debate for another day. More importantly, they promised to match or exceed the benefits of EU membership that once applied. The motorways of the sea scheme, which was created to establish maritime links between nations, was once available due to EU membership; it has not been replaced by any scheme, let alone a better one.

Both the UK and Scottish Governments claim they support the establishment of new services but insist that they must be market driven, which means they must be entirely self-funding, with no state support. A new venture is therefore expected to launch without any state ballast—or even a lifeboat to ensure survival—which does not apply to other modes of transportation. No one would dream of suggesting that a haulier was required to provide the road network or that a rail freight operator should build a rail line, even though that is state support—albeit in a different way. Expecting an operator to acquire ships and launch the service without any support is equally perverse. Why should we not give assistance to start maritime links, matching support for road and rails and replicating what is standard in other countries?

The M74 extension, the Aberdeen western peripheral route and upgrades to the A9 are all about improving Scottish connectivity, and they are not left to the haulage sector. Scotland rightly lauded new rail links that have opened—such as Stirling to Alloa and Airdrie to Bathgate, both of which have proven spectacularly successful—while support is being given to reopen new stations, with East Linton and Reston to come. Even aviation has seen support, with bail-outs keeping airlines alive and a route development fund once provided, as I will expand on. Why the preclusion of maritime links?

The UK Government’s market-driven dogma, which neither applies to other transport modes nor is echoed in other lands, might be expected of a Tory Government, but it has shamefully been mirrored by the Scottish Government. Communications from the Scottish Transport Minister have parroted the UK line and ignored the steps that have been taken by other small and even competitor nations, such as Ireland and Norway. As a result, Scotland is losing out.

Two matters make that position particularly perverse. First, Scotland routinely funds ferry services. Considerable financial support is rightly given to back both Caledonian MacBrayne and NorthLink ferries; CalMac receives upwards of £120 million per annum, and even more is provided for boats and piers. Orkney and Shetland services receive approximately £45 million per year in support. No one would question that: it is essential, as they are lifeline services and neither roads nor railways can be provided. It is a sensible provision of public funds.

Why is it legitimate and sensible to support internal maritime links but refuse to do so for external ones? Why should a Government argue that an island nation that has to trade with Europe and encourage European visitors should not support maritime services? Why can maritime services not be supported when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath said in his intervention, only a fraction of the funds already spent on maritime support would be required and the economic returns would be considerable?

Secondly, Scotland previously operated a route development fund to establish direct air links. That was seen as essential to growing trade and in-bound tourism, as well as, given the environmental impact of aviation, to avoiding an additional flight almost invariably to a London airport. That was supported by all major parties and applied until EU regulations brought it to a halt in 2007. EU regulations no longer apply, so why no Brexit bonus? In any event, as with motorways of the sea funding, the EU and nations such as Ireland and Norway now see the benefit of state support for vital connectivity—and for reducing carbon emissions by reducing road freight and growing unaccompanied trailer use. Scotland is losing out to Ireland and other nations in competitiveness and convenience. Scottish trade and tourism are suffering, and promises from COP26 ring hollow.

Demands on the public purse are many, and resource is limited, especially post covid. However, the UK Government are still able to find funds for High Speed 2, even in a truncated form that will come nowhere near Scotland. Millions were also wasted on seeking to reopen a channel port when ports were available in Scotland and only the ferry service was lacking. That attitude might be expected from a Tory Government thirled to a market-driven dogma and oblivious to Scottish needs, but it is entirely inexplicable for an Administration that claim to have Scottish interests at heart. What does it say when the Administration of Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale were more radical in providing air routes for Scotland than Nicola Sturgeon’s are in providing maritime links?

Scotland deserves better. It requires connectivity in all forms of transport, as in telecoms. It needs ferry services to Europe. Will the Minister commit to funding an equivalent to the EU motorways of the sea scheme, applicable to all parts of the UK, including Scotland? Finally, the Scottish Government must establish a ferry service route development fund to launch and sustain those routes. Scotland deserves no less.

As ever, Mr Davies, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I start, as is customary, by congratulating the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) on securing the debate and making his case so passionately. I also thank the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) for their considered interventions.

The UK Government fully recognise that quality transport links are essential to economic growth, job creation, social cohesion and many other areas, and we are committed to progressing our work on increasing connectivity throughout the entire UK and beyond. I will come to some of the specifics that the hon. Member for East Lothian mentioned, but I first must correct the impression that he has given that there is no interest or investment in improving connectivity throughout these isles. First, specifically on maritime, there is investment going into Scotland, as we speak, to improve port facilities. If he looks to the other side of Scotland from where he represents, at Greenock, there is considerable investment going into the ocean terminal, specifically to boost the tourist offer. Leaving aside the disruption caused by covid, the demand there is increasing enormously. There is investment going in.

More generally, the hon. Member for East Lothian will be aware that the Government commissioned the Union connectivity review—it recently reported—which looks specifically at key transport links by all modes, whether rail, road, air or maritime, right across the UK and beyond, to complement the EU’s Trans-European Transport Network, or TEN-T. That looks at transport corridors as a whole. It might be that, to improve connectivity or capacity between two points, the right intervention is somewhere else. For example, he referred to HS2. It will benefit Scotland by significantly reducing rail journey times from Glasgow and Edinburgh to London.

Does the Minister accept that, even in Northern Ireland, much freight is now heading south to the Republic to take direct ferry access to Europe, rather than following the land bridge? Accordingly, even in Cairnryan, Scotland is losing out.

I am very happy to respond to that. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Union connectivity review—it is a mark of considerable regret that the Scottish Government, out of pure dogma, refused to engage in the review—a central recommendation was to improve the A75 from Cairnryan to the main motorway network, which is one of the key impediments to freight and other traffic moving between the UK and Northern Ireland. So yes, we are aware of that, and we are taking steps to improve it.

To complete my point on HS2, another recommendation of the connectivity review was to improve connectivity between the HS2 line and the west coast main line, and to upgrade the west coast main line to achieve journey times from Glasgow and Edinburgh to London that mean it will be much more advantageous to travel by rail than by air, improving the environment.

The Minister seems to be getting sidetracked by rail. It is important to stick to the maritime issues. We have seen massive investment, as part of the levelling-up agenda that his Government support, in Tilbury, Teesside and, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) mentioned, the channel ports, so why are we not getting the same level of investment in maritime in Scotland? Brexit has had a huge impact on Scottish exports. We need to remedy that, and it is up to the Minister to bring forward proposals that will support Scottish exports as we move forward.

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point. I will come on to some of the specifics of maritime in the next eight minutes. However, it is only right for me to point out that the impression that the Government are not interested in connectivity in all its forms is simply not true.

I will give way one last time and then I must make progress or I will not get round to the maritime points.

I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being a good sport. On HS2 and the benefits it may deliver at some distant point in the future, dependent on the project’s development and links, if we are trying to achieve a comprehensive transport strategy, does he not think it would be a useful investment, and small in comparison with the massive investment in HS2, to support the development of maritime connectivity as part of that comprehensive transport link? Will he commit to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) at some point in the future to discuss maritime strategy in more detail?

Indeed. The Union connectivity review is across all modes of transport. I do not think only one single intervention is important. I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. I know the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife has been to see the Secretary of State for Scotland to discuss the specifics of the Rosyth-Zeebrugge route.

Let me make some progress on this. I understand that the proposed ferry link would replace a service that was previously run by DFDS Seaways from Rosyth to Zeebrugge. That started as a combined passenger and freight service in 2002 but was changed to freight-only in 2010 due to insufficient demand. Even after cost-saving measures were taken by the operator, including changing to freight-only and double-stacking the containers, the route continued to make losses, and a fire on board sealed the fate of the service in 2018. I understand the opportunities such a direct ferry link could present, encouraging passengers to use fewer short-haul flights and diversifying the connectivity.

Leaving aside all the other arguments about Brexit—I am sure we could have a fascinating debate about that—it is surely a truism that it is better to have more diversity in transport links, so that if one is constrained for whatever reason, such as industrial action on the continent or whatever, there are alternatives. Indeed, there are services from Zeebrugge to the UK—I think there is a daily service at least from Zeebrugge to Hull. What I cannot do is commit today to one specific route—that has to be a commercial matter. But the infrastructure required is there at both ends so there would be no need for additional infrastructure at Zeebrugge or Rosyth.

The one bit of additional resource that would be required, which is not impossible and I understand discussions have already happened, is to have Border Force manpower at Rosyth to deal with passengers and freight coming in. Those discussions can happen and that could be put in place, but the request must come from the operators who wish to establish such a service.

Let me put this discussion into the broader context of changing international shipping patterns, particularly freight. The hon. Member for East Lothian may not know that I spent seven years serving on the Transport Committee, so this is a subject I have given some consideration to. Looking at the scale and patterns of international shipping, particularly from the far east to Europe, the vessels are becoming larger and larger. Whereas in the past they would come from the far east and serve various European ports and then return, now they tend to come to one port, such as Felixstowe or Rotterdam.

I think there is a case to have a regional ferry port serving a major international port such as Zeebrugge or Antwerp. That is where the links are made: containers and lorryloads of goods are moved to those larger ports to be distributed from there. For the life of me I cannot understand why the receiving port in this case—Zeebrugge—has access to a Brexit resilience fund, while we in Scotland do not have a similar fund to go to. It seems logical that, if we are making a huge change, through Brexit, to our trading patterns, the UK Government should put something in place to help us deal with that.

The hon. Gentleman actually finished my point for me. By having that one stop in Europe, there have to be additional feeder services. Felixstowe and Port of London are massively expanding their operations—a lot of the ferries are going though. These are commercial matters. It is not for a Government to say, “We want this route rather than that route.” Through the connectivity review, we are looking at transport connectivity in the round.

I am conscious of time, but I want to mention the environmental aspect. We have the Maritime 2050 strategy; the industry is making considerable advances to decarbonise its operations. That is a UK Government-funded scheme, to help that transition and realise some of the ambitions from COP26 in Glasgow. I understand the tourism point, too. As international travel hopefully returns to normal levels in the near future, that could be an attractive destination and boost the visitor economy in Scotland and throughout the UK.

As the hon. Member for East Lothian said, it is primarily a matter for the Scottish Government if they wish to develop this specific route. My understanding is that the Scottish Government have said it needs to be on a commercial basis, but there is no objection from the UK Government to that sort of route being reinstated. I am more than happy to have discussions with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to see what the way forward is. The specifics that we are responsible for, such as Border Force, are not necessarily an impediment. Clearly, there are lead times for recruitment and the other requirements for installing that service, but that is not a block on the project being taken forward.

I wish the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues well in pursuing that ambition, which would be to the benefit of Scotland and the whole of the UK. I am very happy to meet him offline to discuss it further.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.