THE SCOTTISH Government says it remains committed to reducing ferry fares to the Northern Isles, having already delivered 20 per cent cuts to the Lerwick-Kirkwall-Aberdeen route.
The commitment follows an attack by Shetland MSP Tavish Scott on the government’s failure to introduce road equivalent tariff (RET) in full before a self-imposed end-of-June deadline.
Scott and Orkney MSP Liam MacArthur have written to transport secretary Michael Matheson demanding an update on the stalled introduction of RET on other Orkney/mainland routes.
They say that despite “repeated promises” to introduce the cheaper ferry fares scheme before parliament rose for the summer recess, ministers were unable to reach agreement with private operator Pentland Ferries on the details of the scheme.
As a result, fares for passengers and cars on routes serving Orkney remain higher than they should be with no indication as to when this situation will be resolved.
But fear of legal action by independent ferry operators, who turned down a “fair and reasonable proposal”, has complicated matters in Orkney, according to Transport Scotland.
A statement issued on Wednesday said: “It has been necessary to engage with commercial operators on the Pentland Firth. We set out a very fair and reasonable proposal that would maintain competition, enabling them to protect their existing market share.
“Unfortunately, not all the commercial operators have felt able to agree to our proposals. This means we cannot currently implement reduced fares on any of the routes to and from Orkney without the risk of legal challenge.”
The Northern Isles MSPs highlighted that the Lerwick-Kirkwall-Aberdeen fare arrangement is a “stop gap” equivalent of RET, rather than the full discount.
For services in and out of Lerwick, fares have been reduced by as little as 12.5 per cent for a family of four with a car as cabins are not included.
“This is far from the 40 per cent promised by the Scottish Government last year,” said Scott.
He added: “For years, Orkney and Shetland have been excluded from the government’s cheaper ferry fares scheme. Then, despite repeated promises over the last year, ministers have yet to deliver on their promises to islanders.
“This has left people in Shetland angry and frustrated, not least as we see another tourism season come and go with fares barely changing.
“Between Shetland, Kirkwall and Aberdeen the discount announced in June does not include cabins so a family of four islanders travelling from Lerwick to Aberdeen with a car and a cabin now receive a mere 12 per cent reduction in fares. This does little to address the prohibitive cost of travel for many isles families.
“The transport secretary must set out how he plans to reduce fares to the level the SNP promised. Mr Matheson must know that the longer this shambles goes on, the worse it reflects on the government. The funding has been set aside and must benefit islanders who depend on these lifeline services.”