There was a large turnout at the first Wightlink User Group public meeting held at the Depozitory in Ryde last Friday (29th September).
Campaigners from the group were joined by a large number of Islanders as various speakers outlined the purpose of the group, the successes they have so far achieved and their aims for the future.
Bronwyn Hamilton-Brown, the group’s founder, began the meeting by detailing their progress since being formed in November last year.
Since then, the number of supporters has skyrocketed to 5,000 as momentum has gathered following 4 meetings with Wightlink, 3 meetings with Island MP Bob Seely, 3 demonstrations as well as numerous appearances in the media.
The meeting heard that there had been ‘small steps’ in improving the service such as Wightlink confirming that late-night Fast Cats would continue to run in 2024 and, the day before the meeting, Wightlink also announced a £70 price cap for passengers travelling to the mainland for NHS appointments.
It was said that this showed that Wightlink were listening but that there was still a long way to go, with the objectives of the group summarised in 3 key aims:
• Improved affordability
• Better NHS support
• A better service
Nigel Talbot then spoke about the history of Wightlink and some of the eye-watering financial figures involved since Sealink was privatised in 1984.
It was suggested that, given the vast scale of profits, management salaries and shareholder dividends in the years that have followed, one might expect to see a better service. The full report can be found on WUG’s website.
Jenni Guthri – author of WUG’s report into people’s lived experiences of ferry services – subsequently spoke about some of the financial, health and social impacts of the current service.
Between April and September of this year, 86 respondents raised a wide spectrum of issues raised by the current service with some people ‘questioning their ability to remain living on the Island’ as a result. The full report can also be read on the WUG website.
Former GP Dr Mark Rogers then spoke specifically in relation to NHS patients and their carers who have to travel to the mainland for treatment and WUG have now compiled another report, detailing some of these experiences.
Stark comparisons were also highlighted between Isle of Wight patients and those from other UK Islands such as the Isles of Scilly where patients pay no more than £5 to access the mainland for an NHS appointment.
It was then time to hear from 3 politicians with Vix Lowthian of the Green Party describing it as a key issue and a crisis situation.
Richard Quigley of Labour, meanwhile, suggested that the solution may lie in regulation and nationalisation.
Michael Lilley of the Liberal Democrats said that it was an issue of inequality and that NHS patients were being discriminated against because of living on the Island.
The Isle of Wight’s MP Bob Seely also provided a statement regarding the issue.
In it, he said:
“I recently met with Isle of Wight Council leader Phil Jordan to discuss our plans to publish a joint statement on improving ferry services. The statement will outline a common position on ferry services and will set an agenda for a collaborative approach between myself and the Isle of Wight Council. The statement is nearly complete, and I look forward to publishing it soon.”
“I remain concerned by the current business model employed by Red Funnel and Wightlink, which has been normalised by successive leveraged buyouts by private equity investors. I am working to build a fuller picture of the functioning of the cross-Solent market and the current financial status of ferry operators, with a view of inviting further investigation by the Government.
“It has been over 10 years since the last formal market investigation of cross-Solent ferry services. That investigation was undertaken by the Office for Fair Trading. I believe the Government should now re-examine whether the cross-Solent ferry market is functioning effectively. I will write to the Government to set out these concerns.
“I am working to organise an opportunity for WUG members to meet officials from the Department for Transport. This will allow the Department for Transport to explain their current position on service provision.
“WUG members will be able to share their experiences of using cross-Solent ferry services. Officials will collect this data and ensure that it informs the Department for Transport’s policy approach.
“In summation, I want ferry firms to be more accountable to Islanders and I am working to secure a better regulatory framework for cross-Solent travel.”
A number of delegates from various political parties will be attending next weekend’s Islands Forum where the topic is ‘connectivity’ and where it is hoped that the issue of the Island’s ferry services will be discussed.
It is understood that WUG will be holding a further public meeting in the West Wight in the coming weeks.