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Flea jumps on ferry overtime bill

A SHETLAND councillor was accused of promoting depopulation and “island clearances” after he suggested reducing the inter island ferry service to a ‘nine to five’ operation in order to save money.

Shetland South councillor Allison “Flea” Duncan said he was horrified after it was revealed that the council run ferry service had run up an overtime bill of almost £730,000 last year.

He said the council could not afford to continue provided “gold plated services” and had to “cut its cloth accordingly”, adding that neighbouring Orkney was running a much more limited service to its outer isles.

But he was called to order by north isles councillor Robert Henderson who said that in retaliation he would get the road to the south mainland closed after 5pm to keep “the Flea in the Ness”.

He said any reduction in the ferry service would inevitably “empty the isles”, as the survival of communities in Yell and Unst depends on people’s ability to commute to work on the Shetland mainland.

To illustrate the vulnerability of the island communities he added that a number of families in the north isles had put their plans to build new houses on hold until they knew the outcome of the present review of the school services.

The spat came at Monday’s meeting of the audit and scrutiny committee, which heard that the amount of money spent on overtime had gone up by 15 per cent to £2.85 million.

Of all budget posts, ferries are the worst offender, followed by towage services at the port of Sullom Voe (£347,322) and roads services (£341,056).

The meeting heard that overtime among ferry crew could easily occur due to minimum crewing levels which results in overtime whenever any of the crew is not available due to compassionate leave, sickness, training, vacancies and similar.

Councillor Jonathan Wills reminded fellow members that overtime only amounted to just under three per cent of the local authority’s total wage bill of just over £98 million in 2009/10. “Some might argue the wage bill is too high,” he said.

He added: “Most of the council has very little overtime, but some areas within the SIC have a lot. It should be possible to reduce this without cutting services.”

Citing Orkney again, Mr Duncan said he wanted to explore the possibilities of transferring the inter island ferry services to a private company in order to keep the costs down.

Mr Henderson responded saying that he did not have a problem with such a move as long as the service is not eroded.