LIBERAL Democrat MSPs in Shetland and Orkney have accused the Scottish Government of being “not remotely serious” about extending Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) fares to inter island ferries in the Northern Isles.
Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur were speaking after transport minister Keith Brown responded to a question lodged by McArthur about what work had been done on applying RET in the Northern Isles by saying that “some basic modelling” had been carried out.
But Yes Shetland campaigners responded by saying the MSPs should not “bleat for central government interference where it doesn’t belong”.
In May the SNP Government announced that the RET subsidy, which reduces the cost of ferry fares on many routes by linking them to the cost of travelling an equivalent distance on land, would be extended to include all remaining ferry routes in the Clyde and Hebrides network.
Scott and McArthur say they are furious that Shetland and Orkney continue to be omitted from the scheme.
At present an adult passenger pays a fare of £5.20 when travelling from mainland Shetland to other islands, irrespective of the distance of the ferry journey.
Scott said the omission of the two island groups was “galling enough to begin with, but to find out that the consideration given to the northern isles was so negligible is a further insult to the communities, islanders and businesses who have been left to face increasingly prohibitive ferry fares”.
However Yes Shetland campaigner Danus Skene pointed out that Scott “spends a lot of time and energy trying to portray the Scottish Government as centralisers” but was now “asking them to intervene directly in the pricing of internal ferries” which are the responsibility of the two islands councils.
“He is calling for a major erosion of the councils’ powers,” he said, “which are in any case too few.”
Skene said the Scottish Government was directly responsible for the subsidy and cost regime of ferries connecting the west coast and Northern Isles “lifeline” services to Scotland.
“While trying to get the west coast Calmac services down to RET levels, they are holding subsidy of NorthLink at a level substantially better than RET,” he said.
“Detailed investigation and planning of our inter-island ferries is none of Edinburgh (or London’s) business.”
Skene added: “If we are to get internal council ferry services in Shetland down to RET or below, the answer is to give the council the right to raise revenues that they can then apply to ferry costs and other services.
“This can be done by transferring Crown Estate revenues, allowing Shetland again to levy funds on oil throughput, and in other ways.
“Give the isles control of their own services together with revenue raising powers to exercise serious control. Don’t bleat for central government interference where it doesn’t belong.”
But talking up the “real economic and social benefits” reducing the cost of getting between Shetland’s islands would bring, Scott said he felt isles residents would not be enamoured by the SNP’s approach.
“Good, affordable and reliable transport links are always the top priority for island communities and to find out that the Scottish Government felt it appropriate to only carry out ‘some basic modelling’ of RET fares for Shetland is simply embarrassing and will leave many far from impressed,” he said.
Scott added: “This revelation will surely add yet more weight behind the suggestion that extending the RET to the western isles whilst neglecting to do the same for… Orkney and Shetland has less to do with route difficulties and more to do with September’s referendum.”
A Transport Scotland spokeswoman said internal ferry services in Orkney and Shetland were “currently the responsibility of the respective local authorities”.
“In the Ferries Plan, published in December 2012, we made clear that we are willing to assume responsibility for all lifeline ferry services in Scotland, subject to the principles set out in the Ferries Plan.
“We are in discussion with the local authorities who have expressed a wish to pursue this.”
She added: “Given the current position, the Scottish Government has no locus to intervene. Setting fares for the internal ferry services within Orkney and Shetland is therefore the responsibility of the respective local authority.
“Funding for the provision of local authority operated ferry services is provided by Scottish Government through local government block grants.”