Bob Seely’s ferry proposal is pretty radical: Here’s why

They’re radical. If passed the MP’s ferry proposals (Nationalisation, anyone?) would have a major impact on the Isle of Wight ferries … and prices. Get up to speed by reading this News OnTheWight analysis

Ferry car deck

On Friday it was made public that the current Isle of Wight MP, Bob Seely, and the Isle of Wight council had made a seven-page joint submission that draws Westminster’s attention to the providers of Cross-Solent transport services to the Island. 

As those of us who live here know, the ferries / Hover service impacts the lives of everyone on the Island, be that in personal travel of yourself to the Mainland, or friends/relatives visiting. Beyond that, the vast majority of the food and goods people consume here arrive over the Solent. Businesses that make things here, also need to ship them over the water.

Given this, News OnTheWight thought it would be worth taking a thorough look through the underlying document, the submission that the authors sent on behalf of the Island.

Here’s a quick preview of what’s below (the TL;DR, if you like) – The submission is pretty radical and goes as far as using the word ‘Nationalisation’.

The background
On 16th November 2019 Sir Peter Hendy (current chairman of Network Rail and was formerly the Commissioner of Transport for London) put out a ‘call for evidence’ for a review he was heading up, titled the Union Connectivity Review (UCR).

Hendy had been asked by the Prime Minister to, “undertake an independent review into the connectivity of the United Kingdom (UK)”.

To “provide an overview of how connectivity between the nations of the United Kingdom can support economic growth and improve quality of life,” and “focus on transport’s ability to maximise economic potential and to improve quality of life, and will outline a series of specific recommendations that will individually and collectively contribute to this outcome”.

The seven-page joint submission by Bob Seely and the Isle of Wight council was submitted on 30th December 2020, the last day the call was open.

The submitted doc has two parts – Cross-Solent service and what appears to be a re-pitch that the Isle of Wight council should get more money for having to deliver services, due to the higher costs of providing services.

Here we’ll focus on the Cross-Solent service portion.

Ferry companies serve their shareholders, not the public
One central point made is that all three providers of cross-Solent transport – Wightlink, Red Funnel and Hovertravel – currently have zero obligation to provide the service. As they are free-standing, private companies, the only obligation they have is to their shareholders. 

The companies could, if they liked, for example, just say, “We’re not running any services this week”. Of course there’d be a huge outcry. Everyone would get really upset, but presently they’d be perfectly entitled to do this.

The paper goes as far as saying, “we consider this to be an unacceptable model”.

Public obligation
It’s pointed out that Wightlink used to be under public ownership – with the obligations that brought. It was part of British Rail for many years, then was sold (as part of Sealink UK Ltd) to the private company Sea Containers in 1984. They renamed their Isle of Wight operations to Wightlink in 1990.

The sale was done in the heady days of Thatcherism, when public assets were sold off and, at that time, long term issues like this weren’t considered important.

The doc pitches for some public obligation to be brought back. Beyond bringing back these obligations, the prices of using the Cross-Solent services features prominently.

Changes to ferry charges
The Scottish Isles are often referred to by those who want to improve the deal Islanders get from the ferry companies that service the Isle of Wight.

Why’s that? Two reasons: 1) the prices are subsidised by the (Scottish) government and 2) the prices that are charged to residents of Scottish Isles are regulated. 

The Scottish approach to ticket pricing uses in part a RET  – a Road Equivalent Tariff. Part of the cost is a fixed fee to contribute towards paying for the overhead of the ferry companies operating the ferries, such as maintaining harbour infrastructure and vessels.

This is supplemented by a cost-per-mile charge, reached by using research by the RAC.

The Scottish RET is reviewed on a yearly basis.

How much cheaper could this be?
No specific claims are made in the Seely/IWC doc as to how much cheaper ferries could get, but to try and get some guidance on it, News OnTheWight went to the Scottish documents.

Looking at the September 2019 Impact report, “Transport Scotland’s ferry services” by Audit Scotland, we found a mention of a price reduction on one of the routes, “fares for passengers and cars were reduced by 20 per cent for travel to and from Aberdeen and Lerwick”.

The Seely/IWC doc points out the current ownerships of IW ferry companies (they’re privately-held) doesn’t allow for a RET pricing model, but gives a ray of light by pointing out that, as the Gov intervened in Cross-Solent transport in 2019 (giving public money to the companies), a precedent for intervention on the Cross-Solent routes has been set. 

It’s uncertain that the Cross-Solent operators realised at the time that by taking the public money, a door to a more wide-reaching reform was being opened.

Explicitly the doc says, “We would like the UCR to look specifically at what could be done in this regard,” suggesting a transition to a RET pricing model be explored.

The pandemic
Speaking of the Coronavirus pandemic, it does feature further, as it’s an explicit part of the Union Connectivity Review.

A couple of things stood out:

The doc says the actions that were taken by Government – Financial support for the cross-Solent operators and the lifting of the law which had previously stopped them from collaborating (to ensure they weren’t commercially collaborating, to the detriment of the public) – “For the first time, the Government has acknowledged, through its interventions, the essential / lifeline nature of these services to the Isle of Wight community”. 

Furlough money reduced ferry services claim
There are also claims that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) effectively disincentivised ferry operators from running services: “furloughing salaried staff was more financially attractive than having them come into work to operate services”.

They continued,

“So, effectively, public money was being used to support the cessation / reduction of services, thereby resulting in diminished provision for the travelling public.”

Re-classify the routes
Another idea in the doc is that the car ferry services would become an extension of the road network and the foot passenger services would become extensions of the rail network. 

The reasons for these suggestions are not explicitly laid out in the doc (beyond the mention of integrated ticketing for foot passengers), so we asked Bob, who told News OnTheWight:

“Our overriding policy objective must be to aspire to seeing the routes being treated, as closely as is practically possible, as if they were part of the wider transport networks to which they connect.

“By taking that approach, we can seek to minimise the disadvantage and inconvenience in having that part of those journeys being out of kilter any more than the practicalities of a ferry crossing require them to be.”

Fixed link
The fixed link is discussed, indeed the doc says it should be considered as part of the UCR, but with the line, “The impact aspect would assess the potential impact of such a link on the Island’s environment, character and public service provision”.

The overall feeling was that this option appears to not be given much credence – “Our own views regarding a fixed link are a matter of public record“ – with their conclusion being that the money would be better spent on the authors’ more favoured solutions.

How to bring change
In the recommendation section, the doc says,

“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.”

It continues,

“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.”

Their wish isn’t simply short term. They say:

“We are asking the UCR to consider what might be achievable / desirable in the short to medium term, and then as a long-term solution which could be transitioned to.”

The proposed changes could be achieved in collaboration with the companies, with their cooperation, via “voluntary / opt-in regulation (where the existing operators agree to provide minimum service levels on their routes, and ideally with some controls over pricing)”.

At the other end of the scale, the doc also goes as far suggesting the companies could be fully Nationalised – if taken out of private ownership and the routes become state-owned.

While this has been proposed by other IW political parties, this is clearly radical for a paper that’s written by a Conservative MP and a Conservative-led council – a party that has been ideologically opposed to Nationalisation. 

This appears to be an attempt at a radical reset to the relationship between the Isle of Wight and its Cross-Solent providers, not only in the way the fares are calculated – leading to the potential for Government financial support and regulated prices for ferry users – but in the desire to make a public-service provision part of the requirements on the companies.

All eyes will be on the UCR to see if they take up the challenge and how far they take it.

Image: foilman under CC BY 2.0

Monday, 11th January, 2021 6:56pm



Filed under: Ferry, Island-wide, Isle of Wight Council, Isle of Wight News, Top story, Travel

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17 Comments on "Bob Seely’s ferry proposal is pretty radical: Here’s why"

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I suspect, Boris has told the M.P’s to butter up the electorate. A GE is likely a long way off but locals might happen this year. Ssriously bad conservative local elections would accelerate the death spiral for Boris as PM. I know.

Angela Hewitt

Thank you for reading the letter and giving your interpretation of it. Radical is it seems means reverting to the past. Demanding a minimum service means that is what we will get.
No one mentions Community Ownership – by that I do not mean i of w Council ownership – heaven forbid. But a not for profit organisation ownership. Now that would be radical.

Before reaching Angela Hewitt’s comment I was already thinking on similar lines. Perhaps there should be such an organisation, e.g. a CIO or CIC, for each ferry company so that all our eggs would not be in one basket. This would need Government funding, but it would be good also if Islanders could buy shares in them so that the bodies would reflect local views and interests.
A couple of years ago we had an extended trip to the US through North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. We visited the Outer Banks a series of islands that run for about 30 miles along the NC coast. You need to travel by ferry between some of them. North Carolina is hardly a socialist outpost, but we were amazed to find one crossing was free,… Read more »

The Chain ferry springs to mind! Government officials don’t visulize things the same way people who depend on satisfying their customers do!

Mark L Francis
It’s like everything since Dec 2019. Everything Corbyn suggested was insane, impossible, too expensive or anti-Semitic. Then when this Government is forced to do the same things, suddenly the Magic Money Tree becomes Modern Monetary Theory & they have to admit they were lying to us all along. You can have free broadband, you can renationalise British Rail. You can have a trade border down the Irish… Read more »
Eureka ! Mark you’ve come up with the answer. The IOWLF. No, not the IOW Limited Ferry company, the IOW Liberation Front. We push for separation from the UK saying we want to join Europe and the UK government will rush in with hundreds of millions for transportation improvements to avoid a trade border across the Solent (maybe they’ll even offer a floating bridge for Cowes that… Read more »
One of a series of Isle of Wight Council errors- the decision in the 1980s not to purchase the part of Sealink (now Wightlink) that served the island. They could have purchased it for £12 Million, that’s £37 Million in today’s money. Now we see the current owners of Wightlink have placed it on the market and are seeking in excess of £300 Million for it. Why… Read more »

A ‘unique’ proposal which is not. Was this not proposed in the main many years ago when the local authority was considering buying the ferry company and running it for benefit of Islanders. Sadly another talking shop to be buried or kicked in to the long grass.


Yes, but it’s a good bit of spin in the run up to Council elections. Should fool the voters.

Benny C

This, plus several changes of ownership, all sort of suggests that the ferries are actually expensive to run, not very profitable and that, to get a better deal for islanders, subsidy is the only way. So to those saying they’re ‘a rip off’ – what’s the actual evidence for that position?

Cross Solent Ferries are an extension of the road network for which we pay Road Tax. Island annual car mileage is lower than the Mainland motorist. Island motorists catch up when they drive on the mainland. So having paid a Road Tax with no reduction for lower mileage; it could be argued a portion of the tax could be used to treat the ferry as ‘road maintenance’!… Read more »

Have either of the authors of the letter got any personal interests in any of the ferry companies? Or are they shareholders? If so should they be allowed to plan the future of ferry services to Isle of Wight?

If only…. here’s how it goes – “Minister, if we look at fixed link, it will cost 0000 X 100 million If we consider Nationalisation, it will cost 0000 x 50 million But we could bung the companies at cost of 0000 x 8 million per year for 5 years (No strings, but some sort of code of conduct/pricing structure to keep residents quiet) Keeps everyone inc… Read more »

Mega spin from Seely.

Nothing will happen.

If nationalisation is on the table then it absolutely should not apply to all 3 current companies. IF they are all nationalised don’t think for one minute that the RMT wouldn’t call a strike for all at the same time. Past history on the railways shows that to be true. At least one of the companies needs to remain in private hands, but then how do you… Read more »

You make a very good point. Perhaps enabling legislation could dictate that at least one route must be running in order to allow essential movement during any strike. I suspect that the more likely outcome would be some sort of subsidy in exchange for price control.