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Remote communities feel targeted by cuts

The Yell ferry Dagalien - the islanders it serves face a bumpy future

SHETLAND’S islands face depopulation and economic damage if the council continues its assault on remote communities, a community councillor has warned.

Yell community council chairman Dan Thompson was speaking after Shetland Islands Council as good as agreed almost £1 million in savings on its inter island ferry service and started the ball rolling on a possible further £2.8 million cuts.

Unions have been warned they could be facing almost 40 redundancies if the radical plans go through.

Islanders fear the long term repercussions of the council’s proposals will see Shetland’s islands empty of young, working folk.

On Monday the SIC’s development committee spent little time debating a series of proposals to slash £990,517 from the ferries budget through a series of measures which councillors were told would have little impact on services.

Those proposals include a 15 per cent passenger and vehicle fare increase for non-season tickets, an end to free passage for pensioners and children’s fares doubled from 50p to £1.

Proposals for deeper cuts involve removing one of the two ferries that serve the routes to Yell and Unst, reducing crews from five to four on Bluemull and Bressay Sounds and cutting back on services to Papa Stour and Fair Isle.

There is also a suggestion that money could be saved by putting the council service out to tender, as has happened to the island of Foula.

A major consultation exercise has been ongoing since January and will continue until December, with final decisions to be made just before Christmas.

Committee chairman Alastair Cooper said they were making headway on cutting costs and would now go back to communities to ask what they could accept.

The council is desperate to save £36 million over two years to stop hemorrhaging money after years of overspending its rapidly diminishing oil reserves.

However Thompson, a former salmon farmer, says that remote communities are being asked to take too great a share of the cuts.

And he warned of the impact on Shetland’s wider economy, which depends on the fish farming industry that largely takes place in remote communities.

Yell also has a major haulage firm and a busy pier that handles large quantities of white fish that need rapid transfer to Lerwick for onward shipment.

Furthermore young people travel to Sullom Voe to work and to colleges in Lerwick and Scalloway to study.

“Remote communities are undoubtedly being targeted. We have heard it said that everybody is going to feel the pain of the cuts, but what pain are the people in the central belt of Shetland feeling?” he demanded.

“The wealth of Shetland is not being created in offices in Lerwick, it’s being created in salmon farms and mussel farms in more remote communities.

“If we make it difficult for these people to operate and bring their products to market it will affect the whole economy of Shetland.

“If all the savings have to be made to front line services in remote communities like us then we are going to end up in a very bad way.”

Thompson accused the council of paying lip service to island residents in its report on ferry cuts.

“They say their objective is to maximise economic activity throughout Shetland, but then all they talk about is cuts.”

So far the council has come up with 84 different options for saving money on the ferry.

It is commissioning a socio-economic impact study on the affect the cuts would have on island communities.

It is also advising that there is a risk of sea staff going on strike unless the cuts are properly consulted upon.

One union member said, on condition of anonymity, that union members are very concerned about the impact on safety that such large cuts in staffing could have.

Council employees, including union officials, face disciplinary action if they speak out in public about council activity.

North isles member Steven Coutts is arguing for the ticket office to be retained at Ulsta on Yell rather than be transferred to ferry headquarters in Sella Ness.

Shetland South member Billy Fox has proposed a higher fare for visitors to Fair Isle to pay for the small island to retain its weekly service to Lerwick.