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Ferry contract talks to start early

THE LOCAL authorities in Shetland and Orkney are to hold exploratory talks with the Scottish government next month to explore the best way forward for the northern isles lifeline ferry service.

The councils are keen to avoid the experience leading up to the six year contract being awarded to Serco in 2012, in which councillors were excluded and officials were gagged from discussing details of the negotiations.

With four years of the existing contract still to run, the two councils want plenty of time to discuss the various options for an improved service, which might include building new ferries to replace Hjaltland, Hrossey and Hamnavoe.

Shetland Islands Council transport manager Michael Craigie told the Shetland external transport forum on Wednesday that a workshop would be held in Edinburgh with Transport Scotland “hopefully in the next week or two”.

This follows an extensive consultation with local stakeholders, including the transport industry, the main exporters and the tourism sector, to find out what their demands were for the new service.

Craigie said this new proactive approach had never been tried before, but would allow all parties to engage in “a more intelligent and sophisticated manner”.

“Rather than having to fight with Transport Scotland, we are trying a more exploratory approach, but there seems to be a willingness and enthusiasm to engage and share resources,” he said.

Transport forum chairman Michael Stout said that one reason to start the talks so early was to leave enough time for the option to build new vessels, and that there had been suggestions to extend the contract to run for ten years so make it more economically attractive.

Stout added that one issue that needed to be looked at ahead of the contract negotiations was how to define levels of “unmet need”.

He said that there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that people had tried and failed to book cabins and vehicles onto the ferries, but there was no data to back this up.

The issue was widely debated, with north isles councillor Robert Henderson saying that last week a salmon harvest had to be postponed due to lack of space on the ferries for freight.

Promote Shetland’s destination manager Andy Steven suggested people could post feedback onto NorthLink’s Twitter feed when they experienced problems, as this would be in the public domain.

Serco NorthLink managing director Stuart Garrett said they had no feedback to suggest there was a high level of unmet demand.

He also told the forum that Shetland’s freight capacity had only fallen by 0.2 per cent as a result of the cargo ship Helliar being out of action for one month in July and August after its rudder stock had to be removed and re-engineered in Denmark. In contrast Orkney lost 1.9 per cent.

One benefit of the work was that engineers were able to carry out scheduled maintenance work so Helliar does not have to go into dry dock early next year.