SCOTTISH transport minister Stewart Stevenson is to ask islanders to help him find alternative ways of saving money on the NorthLink lifeline ferry service to Shetland and Orkney.
His request comes a week after he announced that the two ferries Hrossey and Hjaltland had to run on two of their four engines to save £1 million on the company’s £10 million fuel bill. The move would have added one and a half hours to sailing times between Shetland, Orkney and Aberdeen.
The minister had also indicated that changes to the winter timetable were likely, leading to speculation that the service could be reduced to one vessel.
The lack of consultation was met with anger and disbelief in the isles.
Yesterday (Wednesday) the two northern isles MSPs Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur met with Mr Stevenson to persuade him to re-consider his plans.
The minister insisted on the need to save £1 million, but said he would be happy to hear alternative proposals from the community for cutting costs.
A government spokeswoman said: “The minister had a very helpful and constructive discussion with Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur.
“Consultations will go ahead with the Shetland and Orkney communities to identify efficiencies which will help meet today’s challenging financial constraints, while continuing to provide an appropriate level of service provision.”
Mr Scott said: “On the positive side, the minister has accepted that he was wrong to try to impose these changes without any consultation. He has taken a step back and put his proposals on the table, inviting others to offer alternatives.
“But he is still determined to make a cost saving of around £1 million per annum. He is still going to leave us with very unpalatable choices.
“There is no certainty that a solution which is even close to acceptable in Orkney and Shetland can be found.”
Mr McArthur added: “Despite the agreement to consult and to look at alternatives, the minister is hell-bent on saving money. Thus, in effect, he wants to make Orkney and Shetland pay for his saving, either through suffering a reduced service, or by paying still higher fares, or maybe some combination of the two.
“He is imposing this on the northern isles while he is maintaining the funding for his cheap ferry fare ‘pilot’ scheme on the ferry services to the western isles.”
Shetland’s external transport forum meets on Friday morning to discuss the impact of the changes on the island community and to consider its response to the Edinburgh government.
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