THE SCOTTISH Government is committed to creating a “level playing field” for the funding of Shetland’s inter-island ferries, according to the SNP’s candidate for next year’s Holyrood election.
Danus Skene was speaking in the wake of a barrage of criticism from Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott after introducing further cuts in ferry fares on West Coast routes this autumn.
Skene said that, contrary to Scott’s accusation that the SNP stands guilty of “overt and political discrimination against the people of Shetland and Orkney”, the SNP government had given a “positive commitment” to provide greater financial support towards running the islands’ internal ferry services.
Local politicians have pleaded with the government to correct a situation which sees the council forking out several million pounds a year from its own coffers to help subsidise the service – a problem not faced by ferries on the west coast of Scotland where the government carries direct responsibility.
There appears to be a consensus that the road equivalent tariff (RET) model used by the SNP to halve many fares on relatively short west coast ferry journeys would generally not work to Shetland’s advantage.
It remains unclear what model will be brought in or when that will happen, but SIC sources are increasingly confident that transport and islands minister Derek Mackay has been persuaded of the principle of ensuring the council is not left out of pocket when it comes to funding ferries.
Skene said: “There is positive commitment by the Scottish Government to help [the] SIC by supporting the internal ferry service. It is established that [the] SIC run[s] a value-for-money service, and that management should remain local.
“Shetland should pursue its own policies if it wants – such as supporting those on low incomes who are essential ferry users.
“The £6 million that [the] SIC has to spend out of its general revenue budget to support the service is a cost not faced by other councils. My own view is that support for SIC ferries should be removed from the general COSLA negotiations that determine cash support for local authorities.
“This would be part of the Scottish Government’s commitment to a level playing field for islands. Current discussions between the SNP government and [the] SIC should lead to support that will maintain the service and keep fares at a manageable level.”
Scott said his response was simple: “The SNP have cut west coast ferry fares by 55 per cent and put ours up. More than 1,000 people across Shetland have already signed my petition asking for a fair fares policy.
“That is a case I will continue to make. Shetland needs an MSP who puts our islands first, not the SNP. Sadly the nationalist candidate has not grasped that yet.”
As far as the north boats contract currently held by Serco NorthLink is concerned, Skene said the “lifeline” route was much too long to be helped by applying RET and other ways had to be found to improve the service and make it more affordable.
He said Scott was “fond of claiming that the SNP government, in finding [a] solution for the west coast, has ‘forgotten’ about the Northern Isles”, but in reality it had frozen NorthLink fares, increased the Air Discount Scheme (ADS) on flights to 50 per cent and was working with island authorities to devise “stable long term improvements”.
The comprehensive ‘STAG’ process involves Shetland and Orkney councils, Hitrans, ZetTrans and Transport Scotland and Skene said the specification of the next NorthLink contract – up for renewal in 2018 – was a “very important part of this process”.
“The present contract inherits the horrendously expensive arrangements signed off by Tavish Scott as transport minister in 2005. More than £200 million is being spent over the years to hire inefficient boats from Royal Bank ownership.
“The necessary subsidy of the service of over £40 million a year means that the national taxpayer is subsidising each of us over £300 when we go to Aberdeen.
“The ‘STAG’ process will ensure more suitable and efficient boats and better value for money. Both a better service and cheaper fares should be possible,” Skene said.
At Monday’s meeting of the external transport forum, SIC transport official Michael Craigie said it was hoped that some “established norms”, such as EU legislation defining what a state can and cannot do in subsidising transport services, would be challenged this time around.
When Serco NorthLink won the £240 million contract last time around, there was consternation in Shetland and Orkney about the lack of local input into how the tendering documents had been drawn up.
Incidentally, shipping company Streamline’s legal challenge against that contract’s award this week began an eight-day hearing at the Court of Session in Edinburgh.
Craigie said Transport Scotland had appointed a preferred consultant to carry out the STAG study and that is due to be confirmed later this week. A working group will be reconvened and it is hoped the isles will enjoy “detailed and inclusive engagement in the process”.
Forum chairman Michael Stout said August’s announcement of the STAG study demonstrated the government’s commitment to doing things differently.
“The fact they’re shelling out for consultants – not that I’m a great believer in consultants being the answer – I’m content that the willingness and effort is there to make sure we don’t fall into the same mistakes as last time,” he said.
“It’s not an argument over who actually gets the contract, it’s on the principle that if the details of the contract are right, it doesn’t really matter who operates it.”
Stout added: “The holy grail is finding a better service for less money – there’s never been more pressure on public spending.”
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