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Politics / MSPs meet new finance secretary to talk ferry funding

The Whalsay ferry Linga berthing at Vidlin. Photo: SIC

MSPs from Shetland and Orkney have met with Scotland’s new finance secretary Kate Forbes to press the need for the Scottish Government to “honour its commitment to fair funding for internal ferry services”.

It comes after a provisional £5 million was included in the government’s draft budget for Shetland Islands Council to run its ferries – a long way off the near-£9.5 million request.

For the current financial year the council received £5.2 million, which was also below its ask.

The total sum dedicated to internal ferries in the draft budget is £11.5 million, with this expected to be shared between Shetland and Orkney – and, unlike in previous years, potentially the west coast.

Shetland councillors have warned that the funding gap could be “beyond disastrous” for the SIC’s budget.

On Tuesday Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart and her Orkney counterpart Liam McArthur met with Forbes, who recently replaced Derek Mackay in the finance secretary role.

Scotland’s finance secretary Kate Forbes.

“This government has already accepted that it must provide full and fair ferry funding for the Northern Isles,” Wishart said after the meeting.

“Continuing to deny Shetland and Orkney the funding needed to run these lifeline services is completely unacceptable. At worst it is total cynicism.

“The government needs to step up and deliver on the clear evidence that it has been presented with year after year. We will not allow previous commitments to be traded away.”

The Liberal Democrat said it is “no exaggeration to say that the future of some island communities relies on sustainable ferry services”.

Beatrice Wishart MSP. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

“However, the money that has been given to Shetland Islands Council in recent years does not meet the true cost of running our ferries,” Wishart continued.

“When the budget was announced it was described as having ‘wellbeing and fairness at its very heart’. But this settlement does not reflect that and is not reflective of a government that is alive to the needs of island communities.”

MSPs are expected to debate the draft budget in the coming weeks and, as in previous years, the minority SNP government needs a few additional votes from other parties to push it through.

Former Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, who was also a Lib Dem, and McArthur both voted for the SNP’s budget for 2018/19 on the principle of fair ferry funding.

That financial year was the first time extra ferry funding came to the Shetland and Orkney councils, with £10.5 million pledged in 2018/19 and 2019/20.

During last year’s Shetland by-election then-finance secretary Mackay insisted, however, that that the two Lib Dems had little influence on the 2018/19 budget-setting process as by then the government had enough votes.