SHETLAND MSP Tavish Scott is urging Scotland’s finance minister to keep his word and deliver fair funding for inter-island ferries ahead of a debate on the subject at Holyrood on Wednesday.
The Liberal Democrat and his Orcadian colleague Liam McArthur are to initiate a parliamentary debate ahead of the SNP administration’s budget announcement next week.
Shetland and Orkney councils both spend millions a year from their own resources on the cost of providing internal ferries, whereas west coast routes are fully financed by the government.
It costs the SIC around £7.6 million a year – nearly half the total running cost of ferries – and the government previously committed to “fair funding” in its Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities prospectus.
Scott and McArthur also point out that as transport minister in 2014, Mackay said in parliament that “provision of transport services should not place a disproportionate financial burden on any council, particularly with reference to revenue support for ferry services”.
But they take the view that Mackay has “appeared to abandon that commitment and made clear that he does not intend including the funding in his forthcoming budget”.
The overall revenue budget for ferries amounts to £15.8 million. That is without considering capital funding requirements. Assuming new vessels and ferry terminals – rather than fixed links – are the chosen option, a £120 million programme of spending will be required over the next 18 years.
The MSPs said: “In both Orkney and Shetland, internal ferry services provide a genuine lifeline upon which some of the most fragile communities in the country are entirely dependent.
“The spiralling cost to both local councils of providing these services, however, is not sustainable and poses a real threat to their future viability. It is simply not right that, unlike with similar ferry services elsewhere in the country, the financial burden should fall on OIC and SIC.
“The Scottish Government’s earlier commitment to ‘fair funding’ was therefore welcome, as indeed was the personal undertaking given by Derek Mackay when he was the transport minister.
“What is not welcome or acceptable is Mr Mackay’s refusal to keep his word and deliver on that commitment. He has an opportunity to put fair ferry funding in his budget but has chosen instead to abandon his promise and hold our island communities to ransom.
“That is not good enough and parliament will have the chance this week to make that clear to the finance secretary. Funding of these lifeline services is too important for Mr Mackay to offer nods and winks and then play dumb. It is time for him to deliver his promise on fair ferry funding.”
SIC environment and transport committee chairman Ryan Thomson said securing funding in the 2018/19 budget for ferries was "the number one priority for myself".
"This is absolutely pivotal," he said. "The SIC have been in dialogue with our MSPs and ministers and will continue to be right up until the budget is set. I will watch tomorrow's debate with great interest."