THE SCOTTISH Government has agreed a deal to buy the two freight ferries which serve the Northern Isles – bringing the entire NorthLink fleet into its ownership.
The MV Helliar and MV Hildasay will join the government-owned Caledonian Maritim Assets Ltd (CMAL) fleet after previously being chartered from Fortress.
It follows a similar move last year when CMAL took ownership of the three Northern Isles passenger ferries Hjaltland, Hrossey and Hamnavoe.
The Northern Isles ferry contract is due for renewal and three bidders are in the running ahead of it being awarded later this year.
Minister for energy, connectivity and the islands Paul Wheelhouse said the deal to buy the freight ferries will save the government money in the long run.
“Our ferry services are iconic transport links that play a vital role for our island economies, so it’s important that we secure the two freight ferries for the future,” he said.
“Purchasing the vessels outright will also bring financial benefits by delivering savings to the public purse over the longer term.
“Making sure these lifeline transport links continue to support the communities and businesses they serve and deliver best value for taxpayer’s money remains at the heart of our ferry operations.”
CMAL chief executive Kevin Hobbs, said the deal “secures the future of the freight ferries, strengthening lifeline ferry provision for Orkney and Shetland”.
State-owned CalMac Ferries, current operator Serco NorthLink and Förde Reederei Seetouristik GmbH & Co. KG (FRS) are the three bidders for the £370 million ferry contract.
There was disappointment locally, however, that the tender documents did not include a dedicated freight service for Shetland.
The Shetland seafood industry in particular has voiced its concern over the freight provision connecting the isles and mainland Scotland.
Councillor Ryan Thomson, who chairs Shetland Islands Council’s transport committee as well as the isles’ external transport forum, said he hopes the vessel deal is “one step further” to Shetland having a dedicated freight service.
“The situation currently is in Shetland our economy is being stifled by a lack of freight capacity, not just at bottleneck periods, but all year round,” he said.
“This is a good deal for the tax payer, but our position is clear and evidence based – what Shetland needs is a dedicated freight service to cope with current demand.”