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Council / Government takes bashing from councillors on ferry funding

SNP councillor Robbie McGregor says he will raise the issue with finance secretary Kate Forbes

The Bressay ferry terminal. SIC councillors are eager to get a new funding deal in place for running ferries and upgrading infrastructure by 2018. Photo: Shetland News/Neil Riddell.Photo: Shetland News

THE SCOTTISH Government was on the receiving end of a bashing from councillors on Tuesday afternoon over inter-island ferry funding – a day after a group of nine elected members revealed their desire to explore opportunities for more autonomy.

Central member Davie Sandison said Shetland Islands Council (SIC) was being “absolutely abused” by the government on the ferry issue.

For 2020/21 the council received £5 million for running its ferries from the Scottish Government – a far cry from its ask of nearly £9.5 million.

“To my mind we are being played as fools on this one,” Sandison said during a meeting of the council’s environment and transport committee.

It comes after nine elected members revealed plans to table a motion at a full council meeting next week seeking support to explore how “financial and political self-determination” could be achieved.

They said decision making is being centralised and public funding is being “consistently reduced”.

The issue of ferry cash is not a new one, with the SIC running its service with a deficit despite the ‘fair’ funding being introduced for Shetland and Orkney by the government in 2018.

The matter raised its thorny head again at Tuesday’s meeting, with SNP councillor Robbie McGregor suggesting the government was being unfairly targeted.

SNP councillor Robbie McGregor.Councillor Robbie McGregor.

“Maybe Westminster shares some of the responsibility as well,” he said, pointing to the financial control of the UK Government.

But south mainland councillor George Smith batted the ball back into McGregor’s court by asking him what powers the Scottish Government needed to enable it to deliver fair funding for Shetland.

McGregor said he would be speaking to Scottish finance secretary Kate Forbes soon and would raise the subject.

He said the government needs full control over fiscal powers to “get the economy of Scotland on the right rack”.

Committee chairman Ryan Thomson, however, said he felt the government’s position was no longer a financial one.

“I absolutely can’t see how it’s anything other than a political decision from the government not to fully and fairly fund our ferries,” he said.

The North Isles councillor said the deficit in ferry funding has had a “significant impact” across the council.

“It’s really desperate times now and we need to get past the political arguments,” he said.

Sandison added: “We have to keep on bringing it up at every opportunity.”

Speaking about a request for capital funding for a replacement Good Shepherd ferry for the Fair Isle route, SIC leader Steven Coutts referenced the Scottish Government’s programme for the year ahead, which was published on Tuesday afternoon.

The government report said that “we will produce and maintain a long-term plan and investment programme for new ferries and development at ports”.

“It’s time to move beyond the words in the documents – no ifs, no buts, no maybes,” Coutts said.

The nine councillors who have signed the autonomy motion are: Steven Coutts, Duncan Anderson, Alastair Cooper, Andrea Manson, Malcolm Bell, George Smith, Ryan Thomson, Alec Priest and Emma Macdonald.

The motion will go in front of a meeting of the full council on 9 September and if councillors support it the local authority will begin to explore options for achieving financial and political self-determination.