Argyll and Bute Council has pledged to continue to lobby for a vehicle element to any new ferry link between the main town centres of Gourock and Dunoon.
The news came as the Scottish Government finally issued its long-awaited tender documentation for the route.
The Scottish Government now has responsibility for choosing the company which will run the new ferry service. Both Argyll and Bute and Inverclyde councils remain hopeful that their views – which reflect those of the communities they serve - will influence any final decision.
Argyll and Bute council leader, Councillor Dick Walsh, stressed that the authority had worked tirelessly to ensure that the tender would allow the community’s aspirations for a vehicle service to be incorporated.
“It is the stated wish of both communities to have a vehicle and passenger ferry service between the town centres of Gourock and Dunoon, which ties into other existing public transport services and improves links with employment, learning, health and service opportunities,” he added.
“It is our view that this service is vital for the economic and social cohesion and well-being of the two communities and their surrounding areas.”
Argyll and Bute and Inverclyde councils have vigorously pursued the establishment of a vehicle and foot passenger ferry service on the route. In the last two years alone both authorities have lobbied the European Commission to highlight their view on the vital nature of this service and have made strong representations to senior members of the European Commission.
In addition, a tripartite working arrangement was established between the Scottish Government Ferries Division and the two councils - the main aim of which was to see a vehicle and foot passenger ferry service between Gourock and Dunoon town centres.
In December 2009, the European Commission ruled that public subsidy can only be provided for the passenger element of the service.
Since then, both Argyll and Bute and Inverclyde have sought - whilst acknowledging the ruling - to vigorously ensure that the tender would still allow the community aspirations for a vehicle service to be incorporated and operate commercially under stringent accounting, to ensure no subsidy leakage from the passenger service.
Both councils have also sought independent legal advice on how the EC decision can be adhered to whilst achieving a tender which would allow the communities’ aspirations to be met.
The main findings from this exercise were passed to the Scottish Government last year.
Argyll and Bute and Inverclyde councils, along with the residents and businesses of Dunoon, Gourock and the surrounding areas, remain hopeful that a commercial provider will be able to operate a profitable service which includes provision for vehicles, even without the government contributing to the vehicle element.
The Scottish Government originally invited council officers on to its Tender Development and Evaluation Panel.
However, the councils wrote a joint letter to Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson last April which accepted that they would not have a role to play on this panel.
“We recognised that the Scottish Government was responsible for managing the tender process, and is ultimately accountable for the service,” Councillor Walsh said.
“We have fought long and hard in pursuing the communities’ wish for a passenger and vehicle service, and continue to lobby in this respect. However, we accepted that we could no longer influence the tender itself.
“We acknowledge the strict European Commission ruling which states that public subsidy can only be provided for the passenger element of any service. But we do not accept that this prohibits the incorporation of a vehicle service in the tendering process.
“I have personally campaigned on this issue for some years, and Argyll and Bute Council remains fully behind the communities in their support for a service with a vehicle element. I am still very hopeful that the company chosen to operate this vital ferry link will be one which will cater for both foot passengers and vehicles.”
In January of this year, Argyll and Bute and Inverclyde councils sent a joint letter to Keith Brown, the new Transport Minister, clearly articulating their concerns about the ongoing delays in procuring a town centre to town centre ferry service and seeking clarification on the timetable for securing the service.
Despite regular requests to be kept informed of developments, the two councils only found out indirectly about the plan to tender the route last Friday (18 February).
Argyll and Bute Council leader, Councillor Dick Walsh, said: “I am extremely disappointed that despite our regular requests to be kept informed of any developments, the two councils only found out indirectly about the issuing of a tender for this route.
“Both communities wish to have a vehicle and passenger ferry service between Gourock and Dunoon town centres, which links with other existing public transport services. We have diligently championed these aims.
“I sincerely hope that all options have been examined in exhaustive detail by the Scottish Government and that the winning bidder will realise the wishes of both communities , whilst staying within the parameters outlined in the European Commission’s decision.”
Scottish Government officials have indicated that the tenders are expected to be returned in March. It is anticipated that the contract for the route will be awarded in June.