SCOTLAND’S First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arrived in the isles for a campaign visit in support of local SNP candidate Danus Skene on Monday morning.
Skene is challenging Tavish Scott, who has held the seat for the Liberal Democrats since the parliament’s inception in 1999 and used Sturgeon’s arrival to urge her to cut ferry fares between Shetland and Aberdeen.
As she arrived in Lerwick along with transport and islands minister Derek Mackay, Sturgeon said “investment and empowerment” were at the heart of the SNP’s plans and unveiled a “10-point manifesto” for Scotland’s island communities.
The SNP campaign team arrived on the Serco NorthLink ferry to renewed criticism of its record on funding ferries and other public services in the islands.
She said new powers over the Crown Estate and winter fuel payments would be “put directly to work” to the benefit of island communities.
Local politicians have regularly criticised the SNP for not doing enough to reduce ferry fares in the Northern Isles compared to a deal which has seen fares reduced by over 50 per cent on Western Isles routes.
Sturgeon insisted that, in addition to boosting the Air Discount Scheme on flights from 40 to 50 per cent, the SNP had “frozen ferry fares for the Northern Isles and are working with island communities on how to improve and protect ferry services”.
She vowed the nationalists would be “investing in quality ferry service provision and continuing to keep fares fair across all islands”.
Sturgeon went on to say a national islands plan would be produced under the next SNP government along with an islands bill reflecting “the unique opportunities and challenges of the island communities”.
“Not only will our island communities benefit from 100 per cent of the Crown Estate revenues that they raise, but they will have a greater say in how the assets of the Crown Estate are managed,” Sturgeon said.
“And we’ll ensure that the winter fuel payments, also being devolved to Holyrood, will be paid early to people who are ‘off-grid’ – making a huge difference to older people in remote areas.
The SNP issued 10 “key pledges” in its manifesto for the islands, claiming it would invest record amounts in supporting the NHS, double the amount of free childcare and improve attainment in schools.
Visiting Fetlar as he continued his own campaign, Scott said hundreds of Shetland families used the boat south during the Easter school holidays, but taking a family of four plus a car cost more than £400.
“I want the SNP to be fair to Shetland,” he said. “They have cut ferry fares on the west coast by 55 per cent. That is great news for those islands. Why have they not done that for us? What have we done wrong? As I knock on doors all across Shetland this issue comes up time and time again.”
Scott said islanders also wanted to see crofters paid “when you promise, not months and months late”, the fishing industry given greater flexibility “rather than tying our boats to the pier in government red tape” and a reversal of “your cuts to our schools that hit the education of Shetland’s next generation”.
Wir Shetland chairman John Tulloch issued a statement saying the campaign group, which last week gave its backing to Scott, was “boycotting” Sturgeon’s visit.
The statement included suggested questions for those who are attending to ask the First Minister, with Tulloch adding that SNP policies on education and ferries had “devastated SIC finances, forcing unpopular cuts in services, school closures and depletion of Shetland’s hard-won oil reserves”.
Wir Shetland points to Shetland and Orkney ferry subsidies being cut and a £5 million cut in SIC funding for 2016/17 – a year when Holyrood received a cash increase from Westminster.