The Isle of Wight can no longer rely on ferry companies to provide lifeline services and the Government should look at introducing a ‘regulatory and governance model’, or funding options for a fixed link, senior local officials have said.
A major, independent review of UK transport connectivity – commissioned by the Prime Minister – should examine how travel between the Isle of Wight and the mainland could be improved, including the potential for a fixed link, according to the Island’s MP and Council Leader.
In a joint submission to the Union Connectivity Review – which is being led by government adviser Sir Peter Hendy CBE – Bob Seely MP and Council Leader Dave Stewart have highlighted the ‘uniquely disadvantageous’ position the Isle of Wight faces when compared to islands in other parts of the United Kingdom.
In their detailed response, they outline the shortcomings of the current set-up of cross-Solent connectivity and cite the impact of coronavirus as bringing these issues to a head. Describing the pandemic intervention (with specific legislation and funding for existing ferry operations) as a ‘watershed moment’, Mr Seely and Cllr Stewart have made clear that we as an Island should not return to the ‘old normal’.
The submission makes clear that Islanders need reliable and affordable cross-Solent connections to access healthcare, work and education – particularly as the community recovers from the effects of the pandemic. The submission suggests that there are 2 main ways to tackle the current situation:
1) To make funding available for a new regulatory and governance model for existing cross-Solent connectivity (with subsidies and public service obligations, where needed, to ensure minimum levels of service) and appropriate, additional funding available to ensure that the provision of public services on the Isle of Wight is equal to that enjoyed on the mainland.
2) To continue with the arrangements set out above, unless the case is made (and funding made available) for constructing a fixed link between mainland England and the Isle of Wight – and then adjusting the ongoing funding model accordingly once such a fixed link was in place.
Bob Seely MP has said:
“We must work towards a more sustainable and public-orientated approach in the future, which has proper regard for the essential / lifeline nature of these crossings. With the railways now transitioning – post-pandemic – to a new, more accountable operational model, we should look to do the same with our ferry services.
“Our connectivity to the mainland is currently entirely at the discretion of unregulated, privately-owned operators who are ultimately not formally answerable for their operational decisions to anyone but their shareholders. Islanders cannot rely on the ferries being there to provide lifeline services. This needs to change. We need intervention.
“Whilst our submission sets out the current shortcomings, and suggests some potential ways forward, we are asking Sir Peter – as part of his wider review – to look in detail at how a new regulatory and governance model could be put in place, with subsidies and public service obligations, as necessary.”
Cllr Stewart adds:
“The coronavirus pandemic has shown us just how important it is to ensure our lifeline ferry services remain open for the transportation of food, medicine and movement of key workers.
“I am grateful to the ferry companies for working with the Council to keep routes operating during the height of the pandemic, but I am concerned that they have no real obligation to do so. There have been times over the past nine months where services have been vastly reduced or stopped, which has caused much distress to Islanders.
“Through this submission, we have also reinforced the case for a funding settlement which recognises the additional costs of providing public services on an island separated by sea. Over many years, governments of all colours (Labour, Coalition and Conservative) have shied away from tackling the issues we have highlighted. As we start to emerge from the pandemic, there is now the opportunity to look afresh at what could be done.”
Mr Seely and Cllr Stewart conclude their submission by saying that:
“We consider that, on balance, the expenditure required to establish a fixed link between mainland England and the Isle of Wight would likely be far in excess of the costs involved with making a meaningful intervention in existing cross-Solent connectivity and providing additional funding available for public services, even over many years. On this basis, our preference would be to see (1) above as the best way forward to significantly improve cross-Solent connectivity and help level up the Isle of Wight’s economy and prosperity with neighbouring parts of the mainland, whilst maintaining its distinctiveness and unique character.”
UPDATE @ 10:20 – Carl Feeney of the Solent Freedom Tunnel Fixed Link campaign group, has said:
“With respect, the IOW Council has no infrastructure specialists among them, and similarly we have an ex-journalist MP determined to revamp unsustainable and destructive 19th century railway extensions, during a period of radical step-change clean electric vehicle revolution. Can these be the people to give advice on the viability of a fixed link Solent tunnel? It does appear to be on the agenda now though, so that’s a welcome improvement.
“Let me explain some simple facts: The Solent Freedom Tunnel and secondary tunnel to the M27 will cost circa £3billion. The expected toll income at far cheaper rates than the ferry fares now, will achieve circa £200million per annum (the ferries generate £120million now). Subtract the general overheads of circa £20million, we have £180million profit in round terms. At today’s commercial interest rates, that pays for £18billion of funding and we just need 3.
“Interest rates will stay low as the UK government needs to pay off large debt. Inflation will rise to lower the debt value. As inflation rises, so do the tolls at CPI. It means the income from the tolls will rise, but the capital outlay is set in stone. Over time, the tunnel becomes even more profitable. It is a highly sustainable and successful project that accommodates and aligns with the advent of autonomous electric vehicles – expected to be commonplace within 10 years which is around the same time the tunnel will open (if we start now).
“Depending on the management arrangements, a great deal of this income can be directed to the portal regions – Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Added to this, the socio-economic boost created from fast and reliable 24 hour connectivity, will reverse our present day spiralling island deprivation. The island will still be surrounded by water but connectivity will be invisible, unheard, clean, reliable, affordable, immediately available and most importantly, it will be regulated. Our elected bodies will be in control, not a bunch of profit hungry shareholders.
“The Solent Freedom Tunnel viability study by ‘Arup’ is poised ready. The IOW Transport Infrastructure Taskforce concluded the study should be done back in late 2016, but ignored since. Private funds of £26,000 have been raised. The Council have only to ask the DfT for the remaining £94,000 and it begins. If the council becomes the client, that lowers to £74,000. (No vat). Progress can start now. The IOW Council just has to make the call”.