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Inter-island ferries spat

The Geira. Photo: Shetland News

THE DISPUTE over whether the Scottish Government will honour its pledge to boost ferry funding for Shetland Islands Council has descended into a political spat between local SNP and Liberal Democrat MSPs.

 SNP MSP Maree Todd has written to Shetland MSP Tavish Scott and his Orkney colleague Liam McArthur to ask why they haven’t said they would vote for the government’s budget plans next week if fair funding was included.

But Shetland MSP Scott appeared to dodge the question and instead said in response on Thursday that finance minister Derek Mackay “must honour his commitments to the islands”.

The matter was debated at the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday and a Liberal Democrat motion calling on the SNP to act on its previous pledge to support the principle of fair funding for inter-island ferry services secured cross-party support.

Shetland Islands Council (SIC) spends around £7.6 million a year – nearly half the total running cost of ferries – on plugging the funding gap and officials say services may have to be cut if more money isn’t stumped up by the government.

In her letter, Highlands and Islands list MSP Todd said she was “disappointed to note that the Liberal Democrat group, despite making a lot of noise on the issue, failed to answer whether they’d support next week’s budget if it increased funding for internal ferries when asked directly about this.”

“I think it would be fair to our constituents for you to explain the reasoning behind this failure to back increased funding for Northern Isles ferries,” she continued.

Scott did not answer the question put to him by Todd – but he said Shetland and Orkney will hold the government “accountable” if they are left disappointed next week.

“Derek Mackay, the finance minister, must honour his commitments to the islands. Maree Todd also needs to honour her responsibilities, not to the SNP, but to Orkney and Shetland,” Scott said.

“The necessary funds must therefore be in next week’s budget. The islands will be watching both Derek MacKay and Maree Todd, and will hold them accountable.”

The Scottish Government will announce its 2018/19 budget plans next Thursday (14 December) and the SIC is still hopeful that extra money for ferries will be included.

Orkney councillors, however, recently voted in favour of transferring responsibility for its inter-island ferries to the government due to the risk that more funding will not being given.

In response to whether extra funding for ferries will be in next week’s budget, a Scottish Government spokesman said: “Shetland and Orkney councillors have held constructive meetings with both the finance secretary and the transport minister, and their funding requests for 2018/19 will be considered as part of the on-going budget process.

“Responsibility for internal ferries remains with the local authority, but our pledge of further dialogue on this issue shows we remain committed to the principle of fair funding in the provision of ferry services and ferry infrastructure.

“The Scottish Government has treated local government very fairly despite the cuts to the Scottish budget from the UK Government, with the overall increase in spending power to support local authority services amounting to over £400 million or 3.9 per cent in cash terms.”

Click here to read Shetland News‘ report on Wednesday’s debate.