SNP CANDIDATE Danus Skene has defended the Scottish Government after it was accused of “discrimination” by extending the road equivalent tariff (RET) to more west coast services without taking action to cut fares in the Northern Isles.
Alistair Carmichael, who has served as Orkney and Shetland’s MP since 2001, renewed the Liberal Democrats’ criticism of the Holyrood administration for extending RET to services in the Firth of Clyde – where the cost of a single car ticket will be cut by 55 per cent.
SNP transport and islands minister Derek Mackay announced the move last week, saying RET would bring “significant fare reductions for passengers” and had been a “real success, bringing benefits to local economies and boosting the tourist trade” on other routes.
In October SIC leader Gary Robinson said Transport Scotland had “given a commitment that they will look at a fair funding mechanism for ferries right across Scotland”.
Carmichael said the exclusion of the Northern Isles was “unjustifiable” as it meant services to “almost every other island community will have this advantage”.
“Local people will have heard everything that the transport minister said when he launched the scheme,” Carmichael said. “He spoke about the importance of lifeline ferry services and the benefits that would come for local tourism and other industries from RET.
“He is quite right about this so why are Orkney and Shetland to be treated differently? Are our tourist businesses less deserving of support?”
He added that Lib Dem MSPs Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott had “fought for this since the SNP first started this discrimination in 2007”.
“Throughout that time the SNP list MSPs that are supposed to represent us have stayed silent. Local people realise that they cannot rely on the SNP to stand up for them.”
But Skene said Carmichael “should do his sums before getting over-excited” about the absence of RET in Shetland and Orkney.
“Alistair Carmichael and the Lib Dems are having a good moan again that some island ferry fares in the west of Scotland are to be brought down by the application of RET,” Skene said.
“They should do some arithmetic. The answer is that if RET were applied to the Northern Isles ferries over which the Scottish Government has any control – the NorthLink services – then the costs would go up. Transport Scotland is explicitly clear about this.
“The SNP government has no intention of misapplying the principles of RET, designed to moderate the very high mile-for-mile ferry rates in the west, so as to disadvantage the Northern Isles.”
Skene pointed out that inter-island ferry services are controlled by the two local councils and, he argued, “they do a good job” in terms of cost. He cited the example of taking a car from Papa Westray to Kirkwall for £39.40 – compared to £158 for a similar distance between Muck and Mallaig.
“It is ironic that the Lib Dem MSPs in Orkney and Shetland have asked for direct Scottish Government interference in the pricing of council-managed ferries,” he continued. “The SNP does not want to implement such centralisation of management.”
Skene added the real need for special help concerned the capital cost of replacing an ageing ferry fleet. “Any representative of the isles – Lib Dem or SNP – should be lining up Scottish Government support for such projects in response to clear claims for such help from the islands’ councils.”
Labour candidate Gerry McGarvey said he was “extremely disappointed by the scant regard for the Northern Isles transport crisis displayed by Mr Mackay”.
He said constituents “have already been urging me to make ferry prices a central feature of my election campaign”, saying it was “probably the most pressing of all” as it effectively left some “island-bound and unable to leave as a result of excessive costs”.
McGarvey said: “Mr Mackay has shown that he is astute enough to appreciate that ferries do play a crucial role for islanders, but fails to see the crisis situation for implementing the RET in the Northern Isles equally as crucial for the economy of these islands, or indeed to ensure that islanders can afford to access essential services.
“Could this be one display of the ‘day of reckoning’ prophesied by former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars for the people of the Northern Isles having the audacity to vote No by a resounding 66.7 per cent in the referendum campaign?”
Tory hopeful Donald Cameron sided with Labour and the Lib Dems. He said: “One of the recurring issues that people have raised with me on the campaign trail is the high cost of ferry travel to, and around, Orkney and Shetland.
“The SNP seem quite happy to promote cuts in ferry travel costs in their heartland: why not Shetland?”
Orkney-based UKIP candidate Robert Smith said his understand was that fares would rise if RET was applied to the Northern Isles.
“That said, I can’t find the figures used in calculating RET so it’s quite possible the SNP are playing politics with the issue,” Smith said.
“Whatever the case, transport costs to the Northern Isles need to come down whether that be by subsidy or sensible private companies taking over the services. I’ve got the number of a chap that has shown us the way.”