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Council / SIC left in ‘dire position’ following ferry funding shortfall

The Whalsay ferry Linga.The Whalsay ferry Linga.

SHETLAND Islands Council (SIC) has been left in a “dire position” after failing to be given full fair ferry funding from the Scottish Government.

That was the message from the chairman of the council’s environment and transport committee on Monday as councillors criticised the ferry revenue settlement given out by the government for the financial year ahead.

Councillor Ryan Thomson called on the government to send a minister to Shetland to justify its decision to give £5 million to the SIC for its ferries when its ask was just shy of £9.5 million – despite previously agreeing to the principle of fair funding.

“I think we are reaching the point now where we need a government minister to come and explain to the Shetland public why they are not fulfilling their obligations,” he said.

The issue was raised again in the chamber as councillors were presented with the environment and transport committee’s budget for the year ahead.

The SIC is left with a shortfall in its budget due to the lower than expected ferry funding, and there is a worry that the inter-island service may need to be reduced or other council services cut to plug the gap.

Alternatively the council may have to draw unsustainably from its reserves.

Thomson said that “fairness is certainly not at the heart of this budget for the people of Shetland”.

He added, however, that the council had “reached a position with the government in good faith” regarding fair funding.

Thomson also said he is not seeing other parties in Holyrood putting pressure on the government on the issue.

The general dissatisfaction with the government was shared throughout the chamber, with Lerwick North member Stephen Leask suggesting SNP ministers perhaps had other concerns on their mind than Shetland – such as the Ferguson Marine shipyard.

Westside member Catherine Hughson said she did not have a problem with Orkney and Argyll and Bute also receiving ferry funding, but added that Shetland seemed to be treated unfairly –  suggesting the council was being “held to ransom”.

North Isles member Alec Priest said it was “very, very disappointing” for the council.

“We are in such a bad position with this,” he said.

“God forbid we cut the ferries, but God forbid we cut anything else too.”

Shetland Central member Davie Sandison conceded that he didn’t think there was any other option than to dip into the council’s reserves to plug the shortfall.

He said cutting services would be an “unpalatable alternative”.

South mainland member George Smith, meanwhile, praised the manner in which councillors and officials conducted themselves in negotiations with the government.

He said it could be useful to for two scenarios to be drawn up for upcoming council meetings regarding budgets – one where the SIC gets full fair ferry funding, and one where it does not – to see the stark difference between the two.

South mainland councillor Robbie McGregor, who is an SNP member, backed Thomson’s point about other parties in Holyrood – but he said he will “continue to criticise the Scottish Government for not fulfilling their obligations”.

He suggested that the SIC could bypass the transport minister and instead ask new finance secretary Kate Forbes to visit Shetland to discuss the thorny issue.

Islands minister Paul Wheelhouse, meanwhile, said in parliament last week: “We have continued our discussions with Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council. There are specific issues in relation to both, including differences in relation to how they fit with the routes and services methodology, fare structures, and the funding arrangements as they stand.”

He added that the government will “continue discussions with colleagues in Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council to try to reach a solution as soon as we can”.

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021