The Isle of Wight Council’s corporate scrutiny committee met this week to consider a report on the Floating Bridge 6 (FB6).
The report into the procurement process was approved by a majority vote, confirming that there were no issues in the procurement, tendering or contracting of the troubled vessel. They also agreed that a future scrutiny committee should review the outcomes of the ongoing mediation to make recommendations on lessons that can be learned by the council from the project.
The council is currently engaged in a mediation process, seeking to recover substantial losses due to the vessel repeatedly breaking down or being taken out of service. The ongoing legal process meant that many questions asked could not be answered for fear of jeopardising the council’s position, leading to frustration for some members of the committee. Cllr Julie Jones-Evans said the matter should have been deferred to the next meeting to enable members to carry out their scrutiny role properly.
During the meeting council leader, Dave Stewart, said the vessel had generated around £2 million for the council, ‘probably creating income’ and claims that the vessel didn’t make money or provide a service needed to be dispelled because they are not true. However the council’s accounts show the service has accumulated losses of more than £2.4 million since the new vessel came into service. £856,000 in the 2019/20 financial year (including £138,000 for the services of a boat to ‘push’ the ferry at high tides), £619,000 in 2018/19, £863,000 in 2017/18 and £74,000 in the year it was launched (2016/17). Figures for this year have not yet been published.
In response to questions from members Cllr Stewart also said that, if they were to scrap FB6, the council could have to repay the £3.8 million grant used to purchase it. The money came from the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership (SLEP) and the council had entered into a number of obligations including performance, improvement of the local economy and numbers carried. If the council did not meet the targets the SLEP would be able to ask for its money back. He added that the SLEP was closely monitoring the situation and had asked the council what it intends to do to meet the commitments and will independently review what is happening. He said, however, the SLEP was keen to work with the council because the reason the Floating Bridge was there was ‘not about money’ but about a service to the community.
Whilst welcoming the outcome of the vote former council leader, Jonathan Bacon, was scathing about how the meeting was conducted. He said: “The current administration, aided and abetted by the scrutiny chairman, tried to create a smokescreen, but the failure to answer questions, attempts to pass the buck and constant hiding behind the cover of ‘legal reasons’ made the reality of their failings all too clear.