THE LOBBYING effort to ensure Shetland emerges with a better deal when the north boats contract is renewed in 2018 is to be kick-started this summer.
High on the wish list will be securing ships with a higher passenger capacity on the route between Lerwick, Kirkwall and Aberdeen.
That could mean pushing for a smaller number of bigger vessels capable of carrying people and freight which, crucially, would be better able to withstand frequently choppy weather in the North Sea.
Politicians in the islands were furious that they were not given more input when the specification was being drawn up for the £240 million contract handed to Serco in 2012.
The matter has been discussed as part of the Our Islands Our Future (OIOF) campaign for further autonomy, and there is confidence that the Scottish Government has now got the message that the next contract must be handled differently.
In February Shetland Islands Council leader Gary Robinson backed the option of selling off the Hjaltland, Hrossey and Hamnavoe ferries and replacing them with more fuel efficient ships containing more cabins.
Senior transport official Michael Craigie told those present at Wednesday’s meeting of the external transport forum at Islesburgh that ZetTrans would be contacting interested parties seeking their views shortly.
He warned that negotiations over the 2018 contract were “closer than we might think” and it was important to be able to put a “clearly developed set of issues” together before the forum’s September meeting.
Craigie said the Hjaltland and Hrossey passenger vessels were “fast, but too small and inefficient”. The cost of running four ships was “high” and continued pressure on Holyrood budgets will remain a “clear constraint” on how the ferry service develops.
“There’s always been an understanding that 2018 provides an opportunity to do something different,” Craigie said.
Councillor and local wildlife tour operator Jonathan Wills said he favoured the option of two larger cargo and passenger ferries capable of operating in severe weather.
“My concern in the long term is that we have boats capable of operating all year round,” Wills said, “and that we have sufficient capacity not only for local people but particularly the budget/backpacker market on which Shetland’s tourist industry [will depend].
“We need couchette accommodation, which is normal on ferries elsewhere in the world, and we need it soon.
“We would need to have a detailed package of concrete proposals before us in September – or we’ll miss the boat, literally.”
Recently installed forum chairman Michael Stout said it was possible that size restrictions in Aberdeen Harbour may inhibit the use of bigger ships. But expected news of a redevelopment of its harbour in the coming days could change the picture.
Councillor Davie Sandison said there were new options for fuelling ships and making them more sustainable that “simply weren’t available 10-12 years ago, and that has to be a key consideration” for the next contract.
North mainland councillor Alastair Cooper said he had spoken to local industry figures who feel hamstrung by having to ship out produce in the afternoon. They made it “very, very clear that they want a longer operating day to allow them to compete, and I have every sympathy with them”, he said.
Cooper added that it was important to use the OIOF campaign to get across that “Shetland’s needs are slightly different from Orkney”.
Earlier in the meeting, Serco NorthLink managing director Stuart Garrett gave a presentation which highlighted an encouraging public response to various offers and competitions it has run in recent months.
He said that the introduction of sleeping “pods” on board the passenger ships had “proved a very popular alternative to cabins for the budget traveller”.
“We are now past the point of having met the cost of the pods being installed,” Garrett said.
There has been “little or no impact” on the number of cabins being booked – in fact, waiting list figures for cabins have actually increased, he added.
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