Green light for Sunday sailings!

calmacI’m delighted to have learnt that Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) have signalled the commencement of Sunday sailings to the Western Isles, despite objections from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CnES) and the Lord’s Day Observance Society.

The development was announced yesterday on Hebrides News.

For those not in the know, Sunday sailings to/from the isles of Harris and Lewis have been an extremely contentious issue for years.

You may agree or disagree with the whole situation but life will go on regardless. Gods can be worshipped by whomever and wherever they choose, a basic freedom of a democracy held dear in this United Kingdom as well as elsewhere.

Personal choice and freedom to choose is so important … parents help their offspring to develop in life with skills that enable them to make informed and good choices. Imposing a will without good reason will likely backfire.

The local authority CnES has always purported to represent the views of the populace but this has never been tested by asking that population whether or not they wanted Sunday sailings. Instead a significant number of councillors, plus the Lord’s Day Observance Society, all with entrenched views about Sabbath observance and island tradition, have prevented the economic development of the islands by stifling any possibility of seven day sailings.  It could all have been resolved so easily by holding a local referendum: ‘do you favour the introduction of Sunday sailings or not?’. A ‘no’ answer would have strengthened the comhairle’s policy position, and a ‘yes’ would have given the comhairle a strong signal that it’s policy was not in line with its residents’ wishes regarding ferries.

The overbearing paternalistic stance of CnES and LDOS has certainly backfired on this occasion, and I – for one – am delighted.

The lack of a Sunday service has meant that, until now, islanders could not get to the mainland for a weekend away without booking additional time off work except if they flew (but flying is not always convenient or suitable), nor could visitors spend a weekend in the islands for the same reason. On the face of it a Sunday ferry appears quite a trivial point, but the economic impact on individuals and the island economy is significant and this decision will bring tangible benefits that far outweigh the entrenched view about sabbath observance (one which is not entirely accurate either).

CalMac said the decision followed extensive consultation.

The new service will initially follow the timetable of the Saturday afternoon sailing – departing Stornoway at 1430 BST to arrive in Ullapool at 1730 BST then leaving at 1815 BST arriving back in Stornoway at 2100 BST.

Chairman Peter Timms said the company had tried to find a way to meet its legal obligations and respect local traditions.

He said: “We believe we can achieve that by operating one return trip a day, departing in the afternoon and returning late in the evening. This will minimise the impact on the culture and amenity of the islands, while at the same time providing economic and social benefits. We remain acutely aware of the sensitivities surrounding Sunday sailings, but we cannot operate unlawfully nor fail to provide lifeline services when there is a growing demonstrable demand from the communities we serve.”

The comhairle said it was dismayed by the decision to sail between Stornoway and Ullapool.

In May, BBC Alba reported that state-owned CalMac viewed Sunday sailings to and from the mainland as “inevitable”. At the time the ferry operator said it had been told it would be unlawful to refuse to run a service because of the religious views of just part of a community. Pro-sailings campaigners sought advice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

I look forward to being able to return to Lewis and to take advantage of the new, enlightened ferry service opportunities.

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Location, location, location

This coming Wednesday I shall be standing up in front of 300+ people at Council Websites ’09, an event being held at London’s Olympia Conference Centre.

I’ll be leading a plenary session about the use of location-based information on local council websites.

Salford City Council

Salford City Council

The number of people doesn’t bother me, I’ve done it before and hopefully will do it again in the future. Wednesday’s challenge is rather more fundamental than audience numbers. It’s about getting back some semblance of normality into my life, another step back towards a realistic prospect of employment following my back injury which has plagued me since last Christmas. 

It is not generally well known that local authority websites are rather more complex than your average site. Local authorities provide a mind-boggling array of services to their communities – sometimes this can number around 700 unique service propositions. Compare this to, say, a retail bank like NatWest or Halifax which may have service portfolio of a hundred products at most, and hopefully you can glean that the amount of information a council needs to make available on its website far outstrips your average commercial enterprise.

Organising council websites so that they’re intuitive to use, and making finding information straightforward, plus encouraging the public to access council services online rather than by telephone or in person, is an enormous challenge but the rewards for doing so are both financial and beneficial to an authority’s reputation.

In straitened times, reducing overheads in a local authority can affect the bottom line, which in turn will impact on the amount of council tax an individual householder has to pay each year. Reducing transaction costs for providing services is one way that councils can save money and pass on those savings in the council tax bill.  

Moving services online rather than via traditional channels is key to this. It’s worth highlighting, I think, the sums involved. Average service transaction costs* for face-to-face delivery estimated at £7.81, telephone at £4.00 and web at just 17p, reveal significant scope for efficiency gains through making reductions in avoidable contact in favour of customer self-service online. 

The subject for my presentation is ‘location, location, location’ and examines how successfully (or in some instances, unsuccessfully) local councils are providing location-based information for local residents.

With that mind-boggling array of information resources provided on a local authority website it can be a nightmare for a citizen to find information about relevant local services or to access them.

Many councils are now introducing a Find My Nearest (or FMN for short) facility whereby you can type in your postcode and the site will tell you about council and other service facilities which are available in your neighbourhood. Salford’s ‘Your Council’ facility is a good example of this (I would say that, however … I designed it!). Try it for yourself at www.salford.gov.uk/yoursalford (sample postcode = M27 4EA).

My presentation will focus on FMNs from a citizen perspective. How easy are they to use in the first place, and to find relevant information? Some councils are better than others in this respect.  

Many implement a GIS-based mapping system which is very complex to use, and really better suited to an internal audience than a local resident – turning on/off map layers that show historical data (when it works) isn’t necessarily helpful to Mrs Smith who just wants to find her nearest recycling point! A good example of this particular genre (that is, an unhelpful FMN) is Comhairle nan Eilean Siar‘s GIS-based service which was clearly designed without the customer in mind! Try postcode HS1 2BW for this one.

So the general thrust of my presentation is to encourage councils to examine how effective their FMN implementations actually are. Are they genuinely useful resources for local residents, or have they been designed without taking the customer into account?

I’m looking forward to it. I just hope that my back doesn’t play up on the day, that I can stand on the dais and speak without wincing too much. Medication will see me through I’m sure.

If I pull it off, it’ll be a tremendous boost to my self-confidence (which has taken quite a knock this year) and be – hopefully – the first tangible evidence to me that I can return to employment soon.

*source: NWEGG