COUNCILLORS in Shetland have unanimously rejected a proposal to contribute up to £25,000 towards the cost of chartering a ferry to serve Orkney while NorthLink’s three passenger vessels are in dry dock this winter.
Instead the 15 members present at Thursday’s special meeting of the SIC called on the Scottish government to guarantee a daily freight and passenger service between Shetland and Aberdeen, regardless of whether any of the northern isles lifeline vessels was out of service for their annual refit.
The decision was welcomed by Orkney Islands Council but met with disappointment from transport minister Keith Brown.
Due to this winter’s drydocking timetable Shetland will be without one of its two passenger ferries for nine weeks between 23 January and 26 March, including a three week stint covering for the Hamnavoe on the Pentland Firth.
The move has created outrage within the isles’ multi-million pound seafood industry, which depends on a punctual daily service to get its perishable goods to market.
Last week Scottish transport minister Keith Brown announced that the Scottish government had identified an extra £225,000 to charter the CalMac vessel Hebridian Isles, but wanted Shetland contribute up to £25,000 towards the cost.
This would have reduced the length of disruption on the Shetland service from nine to six weeks, but generated friction between the island councils as it created the perception that Shetland money would buy Orkney an inferior ferry service.
Speaking after the Thursday’s meeting, council leader Josie Simpson said: “There is huge concern at the loss of service that we will endure during this winter.
“We have to put pressure on the government now for them to do everything they can to enhance the Shetland service.”
Orkney Islands Council convener Stephan Hagan said: “In discussion with senior councillors from Shetland earlier this week, we agreed that responsibility lies with the Scottish Government – to provide a stand-in ferry suited to the needs of both communities and to pay for its charter.
“Now we look forward to discussing this important issue with the transport minister – in partnership with our colleagues from Shetland.”
In a statement issued late on Thursday afternoon, transport minister Keith Brown said he was disappointed by the decision as he had been under the impression that chartering the Hebridian Isles had been supported by many in Shetland.
“We have responded to local concerns in Shetland to try to reduce the drydock period and I was keen to work in partnership with the Council and others in finding a solution to a problem that was neither of their nor our making.
“The chartering of a CalMac vessel was supported by many Shetland stakeholders during my visit last week. This charter would be additional to the contracted services and therefore requires additional funding which the Government and NorthLink together were willing to cover the lion’s share of.
“I have made clear during my visit to Shetland that anything like a nine-week drydock period will not be allowed to happen under the contract that I will be putting in place. I would like to reiterate that commitment.
“Despite the decision of Shetland Islands Council, I am keen to try and find a way of addressing resources of freight users and passengers in Shetland.”
The Shetland seafood industry is now expected to enter into discussions with the Scottish government about how best to use any extra money, to build further resilience into the service during the nine weeks for disruption this winter.
Newly elected councillor and general manager of the Shetland Aquaculture, David Sandison, said: “We believe that there is still extra money on the table.
“The whole issue is about weather disruptions compounded by harbour problems at Aberdeen and not being able to maintain the schedule as a result.
“What we are saying is that when these problems hit us, which we know they will, we will have the ability to get back to schedule as quickly as possible, by speeding vessels up, by daytime sailings and by any further flexibility that we require to maintain a daily service.”
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