ISLES politicians have welcomed the announcement of the tendering process for the next Northern Isles ferry service which began with the publication of a contract notice on Tuesday (25 September).
This gives bidders a year and a month to prepare their bids for the Northern Isles routes which will be bundled up in a single contract worth an estimated £370 million.
The contract, which follows the lengthy STAG (Scottish Transport Appraisal Guidance) exercise, will run for eight years from the end of October 2019. Operators will continue to use the existing vessels in the service.
The first step of the process sees interested parties lodge evidence of why they should be considered suitable to take part in the tendering exercise.
Invitation to tender documents will be issued early in the new year, with a view to awarding the contract in summer 2019.
Minister for energy, connectivity and the islands Paul Wheelhouse said: “The Northern Isles ferry services play a vital role for the communities of Shetland and Orkney and I want to make sure that we provide the best possible transport links for the communities that depend on them.
“The publication of the contract notice starts the procurement of the next Northern Isles ferry services contract in earnest, inviting interest from potential operators.
“We have always said we would take the views of the local community into account and, through the consultation process, it was clear that their preference is for this contract to be put out to tender.”
Scottish ministers will retain control of important issues, like routes, timetables and fares, under the terms of the public service contract.
“All the routes will be tendered as a single bundle and all existing vessels will be made available to the successful bidder,” said Wheelhouse.
Chairman of Shetland Islands Council’s environment and transport committee Ryan Thomson welcomed the announcement.
He said: “This lifeline ferry service is crucial to our residents, our businesses and our economy. The ferry services specification must meet the needs of our industries and our community, to allow both to thrive.
“The Council and ZetTrans will of course contribute to discussions on the specification of the next ferry contract, to ensure that we see improved freight and passenger services, without the constraints that we currently suffer.”
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said the government “should be in no doubt about the needs of Shetland”.
He added: “Direct freight sailings south every night for the seafood industry, clarity of the freight fares review and the inclusion of cabin costs in the fare reduction scheme. This is the lifeline passenger and freight service for Shetland. The new contract must be an improvement on the previous one.”
Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston welcomed the fact the Scottish Government had listened to the concerns of people in the islands who supported a new tendering process in opposition to attempts to bring the contract in-house. It had also heeded the European Commission which told them the SNP’s own suggested alternatives would be unworkable.
Halcro Johnston added: “I hope that what we see is an open and positive tendering process that demonstrates real ambition for the future of our vital ferry links. There will also need to be clarity, after the missed deadline this summer, over how reduced ferry fares can be rolled out across the Northern Isles and what impact that will have on the service.
“This is also an opportunity for the Scottish Government to set out its aspirations for real improvements for the service into the 2020s. People on the islands will be looking to see how they intend to address the demands for freight as well as meeting passenger needs in terms of on-board accommodation and internet connectivity. We must also ensure the service is resilient and that suitable vessels are available when necessarily refits and maintenance are taking place.”
Highlands and Islands Green MSP John Finnie called on the Scottish Government to “put the needs of communities at the forefront of its thinking” by ensuring Calmac is in the hat for the forthcoming tender as a “prelude to the permanent nationalisation of the Northern Isles routes”.
According to the Greens, this would put subsidy back to remote communities rather than the pockets of Serco.
The environmental party also called for the involvment of trade unions the RMT and Nautilus in discussions at all stages.
Finnie said: “I believe that the lifeline Northern Isles ferry services should be run exclusively in the interest of my constituents in Orkney and Shetland, rather than for private profit.
“The Scottish Green Party has consistently called for these services to be run as a public service. The Scottish Government could still deliver this by ensuring that Calmac come in with a strong bid in the tendering process.
“The significant public subsidy that goes to these routes should be used to the benefit of island communities and that simply doesn’t happen when you put a disreputable company such as Serco in charge.
“One thing the Scottish Government can and must commit to is protecting the terms and conditions of the workforce. I am therefore calling on Ministers to ensure that RMT and Nautilus are involved at every step in the tendering process to ensure this is prioritised.”
Meanwhile Thomson pressed the issue of ferry funding, including inter-island ferries, during a visit by deputy first minister John Swinney on Monday.
Thomson said that the inter-island ferries were a “top strategic priority” that must be included in next year’s budget proposals.
Swinney said that ferry funding was a matter for finance secretary Derek MacKay.
Thomson added: “Talks with Mr Swinney were positive and I appreciated his time. He took on board the points we raised and further talks at the highest political level will continue in order to seek confirmation of the fair ferry funding in next year’s budget at the earliest convenience.”