The life line of island life

On 18th March Scillonian III started sailing for her 47th season. The Scillonian III is the passenger boat that runs from Penzance to the Isles of Scilly; she operates from mid March until the start of November. During the winter the only passenger option, apart from a few seats on the triweekly freight ship for those that have the sturdiest of sea legs and plenty of time, is to fly. Flying is quick, about 15 mins but it is expensive and very often whole days of flying are lost to poor visibility or strong winds, making planning of mainland appointments or trips tricky. So the ships being back in the water is a great relief both for the wallet and connectivity.  

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Transport to and from the islands and in between the islands is not universally subsidised from public money. Reaction to this tends to vary along lines of economic theory, from a laissez-faire,  'Why should it be.' To a more Keynesian, 'Really!  TFL and the Scottish Islands get loads of public money. Scilly is fully part of the UK, you islanders should be more demanding'.  Some public money is used to subsidise transport, for example for medical appointments on the mainland and children traveling between the islands for education but this is not at a scale that makes running any element of the passenger transport routes economically viable over the winter. 

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The Isles of Scilly's resident population is that of a large village, around 2500 people. Nearly everything we need to live and work here has to be transported from the mainland and for the approximately 500 of us who live on the 'off islands'  -  the smaller islands of St Agnes, Bryher, St Martin's and Tresco, a further inter-island journey of up to 3 miles is needed. For over 100 years the vast bulk of all transportation by sea and air has been done by the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company (ISSCo). The rather antiquated name belies its origins. In 1920 a group of islanders raised £20k (equivalent today to £750k) and formed a company to run a regular service between Penzance and Scilly. 

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Fast forward just over a century and the world is a very different place. Thankfully the rules and regulations have made life a lot safer and are slowly trying to redress some of the damage we have done to our environment. Expectations of comfort and convenience are far greater and quite rightly our expectations of equality of access to clean food, water, education, public services and a myriad of healthcare opportunities has gone through the roof. As a country we are economically a great deal wealthier than in 1920 but in these very different economic times £750K would fall woefully short of the budget needed to set up even the most basic of shipping services.

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If you are a regular visitor or an interested bystander you might well be aware that for many years there have been various attempts to secure funding for the replacement of both the passenger and freight vessels. Over this winter the issue has really come to a head. Issue, in the singular doesn’t really do the complexity and nuance of the subject justice. With everyone’s livelihood and well-being irrevocably linked to the transport issue, understandably tensions have run high and longstanding relationships severely tested. The fact that transport is currently a socially taboo topic speaks volumes. If you’re a curious visitor feel free to ask but please don’t assume, question gently and listen carefully.

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So, for what it’s worth, here is my very much summarised take on what has happened and what I hope the future will bring. £48 million from the Levelling Up Fund (LUF) was allocated for vessel replacement. But quite rightly the government shouldn’t give money to a private company with no strings attached, so mechanisms had to be explored to enable the funding to be accessed. Numerous talks took place between the Council of the Isle of Scilly, the Department of Transport, the ISSCo, the Duchy of Cornwall and Tresco Estate. However, due to historical tension, some unelected political interference and a break down in trust, a mechanism to access the funding could not be arrived at. Unfortunately, much frustration was expressed publicly by some of those who should have shouldered the greatest part of the responsibility for the failure to reach an agreement, this in turn fuelled community discontent.

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As part of the negotiation process, discussions with the British ship builder Harland and Wolff (H&W) were started. As talks about accessing the LUF started to fail, the ISSCo explored the option of privately financing the building of the new vessels. The advantage of this solution being that the vessels could be delivered a lot quicker and for the ISSCo they would have full ownership and would not have to periodically retender for the route, a major stumbling block in negotiations. The disadvantage being that if private financing was sourced the community of the Isles of Scilly would miss out on major public investment in their transport infrastructure and would be lumbered with a gargantuan debt and its associated interest repayments.

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As the negotiations failed the ISSCo pursued and secured the private finance needed and unbound by government procurement rules, found a cheaper shipyard outside of the UK. H&W were understandably very disappointed, the LUF being a very sizable potential contract.  Then a twist occurred from far left of field. H&W started to look into setting up and running a shipping company that could compete with the ISSCo on the Isles of Scilly route for both freight and passengers. With no expertise in running a shipping route and no knowledge of the Isles of Scilly this was quite a surprising move. It caused excitement that it would disrupt the complacency a lot of islanders felt the ISSCo is guilty of as a result of being the sole operator on the route. H&W made ambitious claims about the timings, speed, regularity and price of their service that looked attractive but raised questions about economically sustainable and practicality.

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This caused quite a bit of division in the community between those who were excited by a new service and those who worried H&W would cream off the most lucrative aspects of the shipping route leaving a then financially unviable ISSCo to service the islands by sea and air year round and that this would eventually lead to a collapse of services with the vulnerable air route going first. The potential impact this short term and potentially long term disruption would have on tourism was also very worrying to many.    

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As it stands today H&W have bought out a small freight operation who had been servicing the islands for a while, providing much needed freight capacity for large bulky items. H&W have a website giving limited information about their proposed passenger service but it is not possible to fully book tickets on a service that is due to start in May. They also refer on their website to plans to have two new vessels running on the Isles of Scilly route by 2026.  The disruption and potential disruption to the market has brought about some positive changes to the ISSCo services. They have become less complacent and started to become more focused on customer service. Their website gives information about their plans and the two new vessels they aim to have running by 2026.   

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The financial potential of the Isles of Scilly route is limited by the capacity of the Islands. A frequent criticism levelled at the ISSCo is that it is a monopoly that exploits its position. I would argue that this is not entirely accurate.  By the nature of the route the ISSCo finds itself as a sole provider but does need to guard against complacency. It is very unlikely that the route could ever economically support more than one dominant operator. The ISSCo provides a complex lifeline service across sea and air, it has a wealth of expertise in doing so and is fully invested in servicing the Isles of Scilly. There are no other nearby Islands to which they have an opportunity to expand their service! On the other hand, H&W has no experience of running a shipping line. They have learned fast about the needs of Scilly but there are still sizable gaps in their knowledge and understanding. Personally, H&W are yet to convince me of their motives and long term strategy.    

My hope for the future is that some public money is accessed to support the Island's transport network. Without it the Isles of Scilly is in a precarious economic position. To argue that we should be economically self-sustaining is way too simplistic. All areas of the UK receive public money in one way or another to enable them to support the services their community needs. The relative cost of shipping and flying has greatly increased over the years and Scilly can't offset this financial burden by economies of scale, that is a geographic impossibility. 
Zoe Julian March 2024

Next is a video recoding of the Council of the Isles of Scilly's Scrutiny Committee held on 20/03/23. 

It is long but it gives a comprehensive update on transport issues..

The above article was written before this video was available.  

Council of the IoS 20th March 2023

And if you read this far you deserve to read the version generated by Chat GPT  under the instruction to re-write the above in the style of a fairy tale - enjoy! 

Once upon a time, in the mystical lands of the Isles of Scilly, there sailed a magnificent vessel known as the Scillonian III. As the sun rose on the 18th of March in the year 2024, she set forth on her 47th grand voyage, casting her enchanting spell upon the azure waters that stretched between Penzance and the Isles of Scilly. From mid-March until the waning of October's moon, she danced gracefully upon the waves, ferrying passengers with laughter in their hearts and dreams in their eyes.

But alas, when winter's icy grip cloaked the seas, the Scillonian III retreated, leaving the islands isolated from the mainland's embrace. For those daring souls with the sturdiest of sea legs, a tri-weekly freight ship offered passage, yet many found themselves ensnared by the capricious winds and veils of mist that shrouded the skies. Oh, how they yearned for the return of the mighty Scillonian III, whose presence brought not only relief to their wallets but also a lifeline of connectivity to distant shores.

In the realm of public discourse, whispers echoed through the air like gentle zephyrs, debating the merits of subsidizing transportation across the Isles of Scilly. Some espoused the laissez-faire ethos, questioning why such aid should be bestowed, while others championed a more benevolent stance, akin to the tales of kings and queens who showered their subjects with bounty. Yet, the reality remained as elusive as a fairy's wing, with only scant subsidies for medical journeys and children's educational voyages.

The heart of the Isles of Scilly beat with the rhythm of a bustling village, where 2500 souls dwelled in harmony with the land and sea. But for the brave 500 who called the 'off islands' their home – St Agnes, Bryher, St Martin's, and Tresco – an additional journey of up to three nautical miles awaited, weaving tales of adventure and camaraderie upon the waves. Thus began the legend of the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company, born from the dreams of islanders who dared to defy the odds in the year 1920.

As the years unfurled like ancient scrolls, the world transformed into a tapestry of wonders and challenges. Rules and regulations sprouted like enchanted forests, safeguarding lives and nurturing nature's embrace. Yet, the demands of comfort and convenience grew ever more insistent, mirroring the desires of a kingdom ripe with prosperity. And though £750K of yore held the promise of boundless horizons, the coffers of today found themselves wanting in the face of towering costs.

Amidst the whispers of the wind, a tale of negotiations unfolded, weaving threads of hope and despair in equal measure. £48 million from the Levelling Up Fund beckoned like a golden chalice, yet the path to its treasures was fraught with obstacles. Councils convened, departments deliberated, and hearts wavered amidst the tempest of uncertainty. And when trust waned like the setting sun, shadows danced upon the waters, casting doubt upon the shores of unity.

But lo and behold, a twist of fate emerged from the mists of uncertainty! Harland and Wolff, a name steeped in legend, dared to venture forth into uncharted waters, their eyes gleaming with visions of new beginnings. With plans to rival the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company, they promised swifter journeys, smoother seas, and fairer fares. Yet, the whispers of caution swirled like autumn leaves, for their ship bore no compass of experience, and the unknown horizon loomed ever nearer.

And so, dear reader, the tale unfolds like a map unfurled upon the table of destiny. Will the Isles of Scilly find solace in the arms of public subsidy, or shall they embark upon a voyage into the unknown realms of private financing? Only time will tell, as the Scillonian III continues her timeless dance upon the waves, carrying the hopes and dreams of a kingdom woven from the fabric of legend.

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