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Ferry fares roll-out date to be confirmed soon

Hamza Yousaf outside Lerwick Town Hall on Friday afternoon. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

LONG awaited details of when cheaper ferry fares will be introduced in the Northern Isles could be announced within a fortnight, according to Scottish transport and islands minister Humza Yousaf.

The MSP delivered the update on Friday during a flying visit to Shetland.

Councillors had earlier met Yousaf and interim leader Steven Coutts said afterwards that the local authority would be “demanding” to know as soon as possible when the fares will be rolled out.

RET variant fares was one of a myriad of transport related topics discussed by Yousaf in Lerwick on Friday, with the minister also meeting seafood industry body the Stewart Building Transport Group.

Transport Scotland had always said the new fare structure will be implemented in the first half of 2018, but there have been concerns that the scheme will miss the majority of the tourist season.

The introduction of the scheme is said to have been held up due to issues with commercial operator Pentland Ferries, which operates services between Orkney and Caithness.

But it appears details of the new fares could be announced in the next two weeks regardless of the situation in the Pentland Firth.

“If it was up to me I could announce it a month ago, but we are having a hold-up with discussions with commercial operators,” Yousaf said.

“The conversation is constructive, but it is longer than I would have liked it to have been. But we are I believe getting to the point in the next couple of weeks where we should be able to announce a date.”

Yousaf said he could be forced into rolling out cheaper fares on the Aberdeen only routes first – but his preference is to introduce it at the same time across the whole network.

The minister also gave a reassurance that refunds will be given to ferry passengers who book now for travel due to be made when the new fares have been introduced.

Coutts, meanwhile, earlier said the council had made it clear to Yousaf that details needed to be confirmed as soon as possible.

“I think we would expect within the next week or so, or that’s what we’re demanding of the minister, to announce the introduction of the RET,” he said.

“I understand there’s a potential issue on the Pentland Firth where there is a commercial operator that might cause challenges to the government, but from our perspective, as a Shetland community, that’s not having a direct impact on us and we want to see sooner rather than later that introduction and announcement on RET. It’s long overdue.”

The RET variant was announced by Yousaf back in August, with a flat rate “capped at the season low islander rate or lower” set to be introduced which should significantly reduce visitor fares.

The government said a trip between Aberdeen and Lerwick in peak season for two people and a vehicle would cost around £110, instead of the current prices of £159.60 for islanders and £228 for non-islanders – although concerns were raised that cabins were not factored into the scheme.

The issue of fair-funding for inter-island ferries was also raised by councillors with Yousaf, with Coutts calling for certainty over whether the £5 million it received from the government for 2018/19 will be recurring.

There had been no confirmation that the payment would be recurring and instead the government said it would to continue to look into long-term funding solutions.

Yousaf confirmed that he will visit the Northern Isles again later this year to continue discussions on how the situation may look in the future.

“I’ve already made a commitment to the leader of Shetland Islands Council that I would chair a session on internal ferry funding, looking to what the longer term solution will be,” he said.

Coutts said he reiterated with Yousaf “our point that we need certainty going forward in terms of recurring spend both in terms of revenue and also the capital requirements of our internal ferry fleet”.

“The budget settlement was a one-off, that is factually correct, [but] that is just not acceptable for Shetland Islands Council and the community,” he added.

“The community needs certainty that this will be recurring spend in line with the parliamentary motion that was tabled by the Lib Dems. The parliament is behind the need to resolve this and this will not be resolved until we get that commitment that it is recurring.”

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