SHETLAND Islands Council will be left with a £4.5 million black hole in fair ferry funding after the Greens struck a budget deal with the SNP minority government on Wednesday afternoon that will deliver an additional £738,000 towards the council’s overall funding gap of over £12 million.
Council leader Steven Coutts expressed deep disappointment on Wednesday night, saying the decision not to deliver fair ferry funding was politically motivated, and the council would continue to campaign for it.
Lib Dem MSP for Shetland Beatrice Wishart described the outcome as a slap in the face for the SIC.
Finance secretary Kate Forbes announced on Wednesday afternoon that a budget deal had again been reached with the Scottish Greens.
The agreement is to deliver additional funds for local government and a number of environmental initiatives including the commitment to implement free bus travel for young people under the age of 18 from 2021.
For years the councils in Shetland and Orkney have argued for full government funding for the running of its internal ferry services, a principle that was agreed by the Scottish Parliament two years ago.
However, both councils have regularly received significantly less than what they asked for; this year to the tune of £6.5 million for both councils. An additional £1 million earmarked for fair ferry funding is going to Argyll and Bute, it emerged earlier this week.
Coutts said he did not blame the local Lib Dem MSPs Beatrice Wishart and Liam McArthur for not delivering the required funding, but the Scottish Parliament as a whole.
“Holyrood has not delivered for Shetland. There is a minority government and the other parties in that parliament have all accepted that full ferry funding should be delivered – so it is a failure of Holyrood,” he said.
“Everyone in Holyrood accepted the principle of full and fair funding; we have established what the financial burden is but if the budget goes through on Thursday then Holyrood has again not listened to the people of Shetland.”
Coutts added that he and his colleagues were determined to fight on until the government put the money were its mouth is.
“We will not give up, we believe that we should be treated fairly and we will continue to pursue all avenues to make sure that that fairness is delivered,” he said.
Asked if the council would consider taking the Scottish Government to court, Coutts replied he would not rule anything out in the council’s efforts to “be treated fairly by the Scottish Government”.
He added: “There has been additional money found in the budget process, and clearly it has been a political choice to continue that unfairness towards Shetland, and that is something that we cannot accept.”
Wishart, meanwhile, described the budget deal with the Greens as disappointing.
“The budget agreement between the SNP and the Greens does not appear to include an uplift in ferry funding compared to last year,” she said. “The failure to put this on the face of the budget is a huge let down for Shetlanders who got a clear commitment two years ago.
“What’s more, this budget is a real slap in the face for SIC who are once again being short-changed by the Scottish Government. I think that’s very disappointing.”
She said the Lib Dems had engaged with the newly appointed finance secretary in a positive way, but she did not respond to specific questions about the process when asked by Shetland News.
Highlands and Islands Green MSP John Finnie made no reference to fair ferry funding and also did not respond to a question on that topic.
In a statement, he said: “Since the 2016 election the Scottish Greens have pushed the Scottish Government to provide councils with a fairer share of funding. I’m delighted that this year Greens have been able to deliver £738,000 more for Shetland Islands Council to help protect vital local services upon which my constituents depend.”
In announcing the budget deal, Forbes said earlier in Wednesday: “I want to thank all parties for the constructive way in which they have approached this year’s discussions.
“While it is not possible to meet every party’s demands in full, I believe in reaching formal agreement with the Green Party, I am also delivering on key asks from every party and I encourage all MSPs to consider giving their support to Scotland’s budget.”
A Scottish Government spokesman added: “Local authorities are wholly responsible for their own internal ferry services, but we understand the significant financial challenges that can fall on individual councils from doing so.
“Additional funding support of £11.5m for local authority ferry services, over and above that provided through the annual grant aided expenditure (GAE) allocation, has been allocated within the Scottish budget for financial year 2020-21.
“This is an increase of £1m on the last financial year, in a challenging financial context, and this brings the total additional support provided for local authority ferry services over the past three years to £32.5m, while ministers have also offered support to Orkney Islands Council towards the cost of replacing the Orkney Ferries vessel the MV Golden Mariana, and have yet to receive a formal response.”
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