Kenny MacAskill (East Lothian) (Alba)
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.