A bid by Conservative councillors in North Ayrshire to secure backing for the 'break-up' of Scotland's west coast ferry fleet has fallen short.

North Coast councillor Tom Marshall tabled a motion asking that the local authority write to transport minister Fiona Hyslop, asking that the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Service contract be 'unbundled'.

Conservative politicians have long argued that would pave the way for more efficiently run services.

But opponents have warned for just as long that allowing private firms to 'cherry-pick' the busiest routes, such as Largs-Cumbrae and Ardrossan-Brodick, would only hurt services in other less busy areas.

Ms Hyslop recently confirmed that an announcement on the next CHFS contract award would be delayed to allow the Scottish Government more time to investigate issues around making a 'direct award' to CalMac Ferries Ltd.

That delay means the current CHFS contract will be extended by a year, to September 30, 2025.

Cllr Marshall's North Coast colleagues, fellow Conservative Todd Ferguson - who seconded the motion - and independent Ian Murdoch, both pointed to the privately-run Western Ferries service between Hunter's Quay and McInroy's Point, which celebrated its 50th anniversary a year ago, as evidence of how the private sector could run ferry services well.

Cllr Marshall Cllr Marshall (Image: North Ayrshire Council)

Cllr Marshall's original motion stated: "The CalMac ferry services to our islands of Arran and Cumbrae continue to offer poor value for the residents, tourists and taxpayer alike and contrary to the aims of the Island Plan contribute to the decline in population of both Islands.

"Both the Arran and Cumbrae ferry services underperform in terms, of reliability, capacity, and frequency and in so doing threaten the tourist economies of both Islands.

"The contract for the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services (CHFS) which are operated by CalMac is due to be retendered in September 2024.

"We move that the chief executive write to the Scottish Government and the Transport Minister to express our view that the present contract for the Clyde and Hebridean Ferry Service should not in its entirety be directly awarded to CalMac.

"[It] should be unbundled to seek a competitive tender for the Clyde island ferry services and in so doing provide better access to the Islands thereby ensuring that islanders' lifestyles can be improved, population decline reversed, and the tourist economy reinvigorated."

Labour councillor Joe Cullinane asked Cllr Marshall if it was simply privatisation that the Conservatives were trying to push through - something Cllr Marshall denied.

He insisted unbundling was "simply a different way of contracting that encourges great competition that returns better services to get better value for the taxpayer".

However, Cllr Cullinane insisted it was still a form of privatisation, responded: "The nature of competitive tendering with a publicly owned ferry service does mean privatisation on the basis of that response."

However, Cllr Marshall said: "CalMac does not run an efficient ferry service.

"In Norway contracts are unbundled and run by private companies which are far more efficienr. They run smaller boats, cost much less in fares and run a service that runs late into the evening.

"Particulary in the Clyde, it would allow better services for Cumbrae, Arran and Rothesay.

"The example is Western Ferries, a private company which runs from from Gourock to Dunoon, and runs to midnight, and is very efficient."

North Coast SNP councillor Eleanor Collier said: "Norway's ferries are subsidised. They are run by private companies, but saying moving to a regional model would stop the investment of public money is untrue.

CalMac's service to the Clyde islands came in for criticism from Conservative councillors in North Ayrshire.CalMac's service to the Clyde islands came in for criticism from Conservative councillors in North Ayrshire. (Image: Jean Penman)

"Very few ferry companies in the world operate in world without government subsidy."

Council leader Marie Burns (SNP) said work was being carried out to ensure improvement to the CalMac service and insisted she believed public ownership was a crucial factor.

Councillor Ian Murdoch (Independent, North Coast) said: "Business, tourism and domestic journeys all being horrendously affected for Cumbrae and Arran.

"I just feel that the service is abymsal and needs to be upgraded.

"Cllr Marshall gave a good example of Western Ferries. They are very reliable, in comparison. I'd love that to be the case with the CalMac service."

Cllr Ferguson, who lives on Cumbrae, said: "I witness daily the outstanding service the CalMac staff give on a daily basis.

"However, the service that CalMac, the company, gives to Scottish islands has been nothing short of shambolic.

Cllr Ian Murdoch said disruption was very rare on Western Ferries' Gourock-Dunoon route.Cllr Ian Murdoch said disruption was very rare on Western Ferries' Gourock-Dunoon route. (Image: Tommy Bamford)

"This motion seeks to address the situation that we have been facing for many years now. Pleas to unbundle the routes have fallen on deaf ears, while ferry services have fallen from bad to worse.

"It is usually met with a wall of resistance, but all islanders want to ensure is a reliable service to the mainland.

"You only have to look a short way up the coast to see the work Western Ferries do from Gourock to Dunoon to see how good a private service it is."

Cllr Marshall's motion was defeated by 20 votes to nine.