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Ferry concerns to be raised

ZetTrans is to express its concerns over the current situation with the Northern Isles ferry service.

MEMBERS of Shetland’s transport partnership ZetTrans have agreed to express their concern to Transport Scotland over its recent freight ferry fares increase and its handling of the Northern Isles ferry contract.

The motion, raised by Shetland Central councillor Davie Sandison at the latest ZetTrans meeting in Lerwick on Thursday, criticised the “lack of engagement” with stakeholders in its review of freight fares on ferries heading to and from Shetland.

It also raises concerns to Transport Scotland over the “lack of clarity” over the decision to extend the current ferry contract from April 2018 into 2019.

SNP councillor Robbie McGregor held his own party to account by adding a call to the motion for the Scottish Government to reconsider its recently announced 2.9 per cent increase for freight fares, which is due to come into force from 1 January.

There was a general sense of frustration emanating from ZetTrans members on a number of ferry matters relating to Transport Scotland, which was brought into focus with an update report by Shetland Islands Council’s transport manager Michael Craigie.

They ranged from the “fair funding” of inter-island ferry services and the study into the specification of the next Northern Isles ferry contract to the possible extension of the current contract and the criticised freight fares increase.

ZetTrans chairman Ryan Thomson, who also leads the council’s environment and transport committee, said the freight fares increase was “extremely disappointing” and that the impact on Shetland as a whole “should not be underestimated”.

“A one size fits all approach doesn’t work for us in Shetland and never will,” he said.

Sandison agreed and said it was quite right that members should be “disappointed and disillusioned” with the progress from Transport Scotland.

Thomson suggested that Shetland “continues to be fobbed off” by central government in areas such as the inter-island ferries, which the SIC is hoping to receive funding for despite an apparent U-turn on a previous commitment.

The North Isles councillor said comments from the Scottish Government hinted that cash for internal ferries may have been stumped by now if the SIC had no reserves to draw from.

Craigie’s report added that a lack of formal clarity over whether the current Serco NorthLink ferry contract is to be extended is placing a “substantial constraint” on local producers and haulers’ ability to “plan their businesses with any reasonable level of confidence”.

Highland and Islands Enterprise’s Rachel Hunter added that businesses are “very concerned” about the uncertainty, which could ultimately have an impact on economic growth.

In February Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf said the contract would be extended as the government considers whether under certain circumstances public ferry services could be awarded to an in-house operator without the need for a tendering process under European regulations.

But with around five months to go until the current contract ends before the start of April, there has been no formal announcement about the duration of the extension, which Yousaf previously said could be nine or 12 months – or longer.

It is thought that an update on the contract situation will be given when Transport Scotland reveals progress on its procurement policy review.

Craigie, meanwhile, said a number of options had been considered for dealing with demand for ferries once passenger fares decrease next year, but he said additional daytime sailings could make the service “more vulnerable to weather delays”.