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Scottish Independence Debate / Isles to demand more say over North Boats

Serco NorthLink managing director Stuart Garrett shortly after the company won the North Boats contract.

GREATER say for islanders over the drawing up of the North Boats contract could be added to the list of demands for greater autonomy from Edinburgh.

SIC councillors were updated on the progress of the “our islands, our future” campaign, which is being run by Shetland and local authorities in Orkney and the Western Isles, during last week’s Full Council.

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There were widespread concerns within the local authority that it was not properly consulted prior to the shock decision to award the lucrative £243 million contract to controversial multinational services company Serco 18 months ago.

West Side member Theo Smith reflected that disquiet on Wednesday, saying he felt the community “really has no input into it at all” in the months leading up to its award.

Asked if he felt more control over ferry services should form part of the campaign for greater autonomy, which recently won an award from The Herald newspaper, councillor Gary Robinson said he fully agreed.

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The current situation where civil servants ultimately define the service to me isn’t satisfactory,” he told members. 

“One of the things we clearly do want to see is more control over our ferry services at this end. We have to live with it [the service], so we’re absolutely trying to progress on that here.”

Prior to Serco being awarded the contract, following a decade of NorthLink running the service, council officials were invited to Edinburgh to discuss the tendering process with government civil servants.

However ZetTrans chairman Allan Wishart was furious that those officials basically ended up “stuck in a cupboard” and called out to answer occasional questions.

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Wishart, who earlier this year spoke of how changes made by Serco had led to a “groundswell of cynicism and resentment” among islanders, said it was vital that the Holyrood government makes a better fist of consulting the travelling public next time around.

The current North Boats contract runs until 2018, and Wishart said he had been “trying to raise it with anybody that’s interested” to ensure the SIC was thoroughly prepared by the time fresh negotiations begin.

“What vessels are we going to get? What capacity and schedule?” he asked. “There’s a whole lot of things to be discussed, time ticks by and we need to be talking about it now.”

Although the government has indicated it wants there to be a more open process with the service’s users given greater input, Wishart said he would like to see the ferry contract added to the list of areas the island councils want greater autonomy over.

“I’m very much in favour of getting it raised in any form we can,” he said.

“Given the cost of running the ferries, with the fuel, we need more efficient boats with a better capacity. If that sort of money could be saved, it could be directed into more accommodation for passengers.”

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, another who has been heavily critical of the changes made by Serco, said the council should be involved in “both setting the terms of the tender for Shetland’s lifeline shipping services to Aberdeen, and selecting the operator”.

“Had that happened when the Scottish Government awarded the service to Serco I doubt Shetlanders would have seen cuts to the discounts for pensioners, students and people with disabilities,” Mr Scott said.

“These changes were made without any consultation with people in Shetland, which was unacceptable. So future contracts over these essential services must involve local interests.”

 

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