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Viewpoint / Opinion: ferry fares campaign vindicated

Ferry fares campaigner Ryan Thomson - Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

FOR YEARS now our ferry fares have been far too high. They have crept up considerably over the last decade or so, around 154 per cent since 2007 by my calculation, writes ferry fares campaigner Ryan Thomson.  Finally though, politicians are starting to recognise this high level of fares is entirely unacceptable.

First of all, a peerie bit of background as to why I felt a petition and campaign were necessary. Both Nicola Sturgeon on her visit to Shetland and Humza Yousaf shortly after being announced as transport and islands minister promised that a reduction in fares is required and will happen “sooner rather than later”. 

They’re absolutely right, cuts are long overdue. The Western Isles since the introduction of the road equivalent tariff (RET) has seen reductions in their fares of up to 55 per cent mainly because of a subsidy increase of 41 per cent since 2013. In the same period, Shetland’s prices have increased year on year (until recently) with a subsidy decrease of 14 per cent.  Some families have to pay £900 return to get from Shetland to Aberdeen, which is entirely unacceptable.

In terms of our lifeline ferry service we have been completely ignored by the Scottish Government until 2016.  Only in the run-up to May’s election did we have any concrete promise to reduce our fares, an acknowledgement by Sturgeon that they are far too high and have been for some time. The contract was awarded to Serco Northlink in 2012 and they were left to just get on with it. £243m of public money handed to them, and absolutely impossible to trace these funds (I’ve tried).

‘Petition snowballed into full-blown campaign’

The campaign started from a simple petition to keep the pressure on back in May. I had no idea the strength of feeling, not only in Shetland and Orkney, but from those staying on the mainland wanting to travel here. I was inundated with questions, well wishes and messages of support. Because of this, and hitting 1,000 signatures within a week, the petition snowballed into a full-blown campaign – to the point where it’s nearly become a part time job! 

Our MSP Tavish Scott sent his support, local media got involved and thankfully so did experienced campaigner James Stewart, who continues to provide excellent background support, experience and assistance. Facebook posts, research, discussions with people from across the UK, emails and letters coming to and from MPs, Holyrood and Transport Scotland, it’s very challenging but when we make steps forward it’s extremely rewarding.

The campaign hasn’t been without criticism. There were those in political positions from within Shetland publicly questioning the need for such a campaign from day one, suggesting it was a waste of time. With delay after delay from the Scottish Government, and a failure to even commit to a timescale now nearly nine months on, I believe the campaign has been more than vindicated.

The campaign keeps an online presence, reminding the public to sign the petition which is very important and central to the whole campaign, but we are also continuously putting pressure on both Transport Scotland and Yousaf, through public press releases, online statements, letters, emails and even face to face meetings. Public pressure has and will continue to be pivotal in making sure the Scottish Government keep their promise to reduce our fares “significantly”.

Serco Northlink cannot be blameless in this either. The £243m contract is over six years, equating to just under £111,000 for every single day of their contract. Surely there is no need to be charging the level of fares they do to customers. Unfortunately a Freedom of Information request was unsuccessful, and despite the £243m being from the public purse there is no legal requirement to keep separate accounts detailing what they spend that money on, something which surely must change when the new contract comes into play in April 2018.

‘Like putting yourself in a goldfish bowl’

Campaigning in Shetland isn’t for everyone, and it’s not difficult to see why people tend not to put themselves in these types of public positions. Doing something of this nature is like putting yourself in a goldfish bowl, every word you say is scrutinised, criticised, debated online and in public. I suspect the level of personal scrutiny people face in Shetland doesn’t happen in many places.

In terms of where the campaign is at now, I believe we have never been closer to receiving our long overdue reduction in fares. Momentum is without doubt building both locally and nationally. There is a unity between campaigners, the councils, the local communities, our MP and MSPs along with the Scottish Government to see fares reduced and quickly. Yousaf said to me in a letter just last week that they weren’t working towards an “April 2018 timeframe”, but I would be very surprised (and delighted) if we were to see reductions before then.

It shouldn’t cost the price of a return transatlantic flight to get from Lerwick to Aberdeen – it’s that simple. It’s an internal journey within a country and I suspect you’d be hard pushed to find a more expensive internal journey anywhere in the world.

This campaign’s only purpose has been to keep the Scottish Government and Yousaf “on their toes” about reducing our fares, and the amount of correspondence we’ve received and media releases they’ve been forced to make stating they are still committed to doing suggests we have been very successful in doing just that.

As many of you may be aware, I plan on standing for council in the North Isles ward in 2017. My decision to run has been somewhat inspired by the work done during this campaign, and what I’ve experienced and learned from the many people I’ve spoken with, and I hope to carry that momentum into the town hall chamber should I be so lucky to become elected.

I look forward to the day when we can wind up this campaign because that will mean we have received our promised cuts, and they are to a satisfactory level.  Until then, though, we won’t stop. We will keep fighting until that very first “significantly reduced fares” booking.

Ryan Thomson