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Transport / More ferry breakdowns likely without government support for new vessels, councillor warns

The Yell ferry Dagalien. Photo: SIC

A SENIOR councillor believes ferry breakdowns will become more common if the Scottish Government does not support a “proper” replacement programme for Shetland Islands Council’s (SIC) ageing inter-island fleet.

Ryan Thomson, who chair’s the SIC’s environment and transport committee, said it is a “disgraceful situation”.

It comes after two more breakdowns on the council’s ferries in the North Isles, with services disrupted on the Bluemull Sound route on Tuesday morning and on Friday afternoon.

Councillor Ryan Thomson.

Council leader Steven Coutts, meanwhile, said having the choice to deliver a programme of fixed links is the “type of opportunity we are looking to with self determination”.

Last week councillors voted overwhelmingly to explore ways of achieving financial and political self-determination.

Transport is a key part of this, and North Isles councillor Thomson said it has become a “political decision” for the government “not to help and assist the Shetland Isles and our public to help build a proper capital replacement program to replace our ageing vessels”.

There have been a number of faults in recent months on the ferry fleet and some linkspans.

Councillors are also frustrated that the SIC’s ask to the Scottish Government for money to cover running its internal service has fallen short since ‘fair funding’ for ferries was introduced a few years ago, leaving a deficit in council’s books.

At the moment a business case for a replacement Fair Isle ferry, and associated harbour improvements, is sitting on the desk of government ministers.

Proposals for replacement Whalsay ferries is still being worked on, with the coronavirus pandemic thought to have held it up.

“The government continue to point to the fact internal transport is the responsibility of the local authority, but once again completely ignoring the fact that no local authority in this country could afford the capital replacement costs to the extent we require,” Thomson said.

“It also isn’t lost that the government choose to assist other local authorities with ferry replacement costs.”

Thomson said he called on a government minister to explain “why they are not fulfilling their obligations to the people of Shetland in March, and we’re still waiting”.

“The government have Shetland over a barrel,” he added.

“They continue to use our lifeline service to their political advantage, using the circumstances of our most vulnerable communities as a political pawn.

It’s a disgraceful situation. Breakdowns will become more regular, with repair costs becoming more costly to the local authority.

“The status quo is no longer an option for Shetland. If we want to make any sort of headway we must look at alternative options, including political and financial self-determination for Shetland. Not doing so would be a dereliction of our duty.”

Referring to ferry funding, Scottish islands minister Paul Wheelhouse said: “It is the responsibility of individual local authorities to manage their own budgets and to allocate the total financial resources available to them, including on ferry services, on the basis of local needs and priorities.

“Over the past three years, we have provided £32.5 million of support for local authority ferry services, with Shetland receiving more than £15 million over the last three years.”

The Scottish Government’s recently published programme for the year ahead said “we will produce and maintain a long-term plan and investment programme for new ferries and development at ports to improve resilience, reliability, capacity, and accessibility, increase standardisation, and reduce emissions to meet the needs of island communities and give confidence on our ongoing commitment”.

SIC political leader Steven Coutts.SIC leader Steven Coutts: Photo: Shetland News

Council leader Coutts, meanwhile, suggested that the idea of fixed links for Shetland – such as bridges and tunnels – is more likely to see progress if the isles had more powers.

The councillor pointed to the example of the self-governing Faroe Islands, which has a number of tunnels as well as some bridges.

The SIC is supportive of fixed links but their cost prohibits the council from going it alone.

“The overarching aim here is to have a structure is in place where local politicians can make, and be accountable, for local decisions,” Coutts said.

“Using fixed links as an example. The community of Shetland is currently reliant on national policy and decision making to deliver. So we contribute to national consultations on infrastructure commission, strategic transport reviews, etc, stressing the importance. But no local accountability for taking the views of Shetland forward.

“As has been well discussed, while the council strongly believes that fixed links are integral to the future sustainability of the community, the council cannot take forward such projects forward due to the limitations they have.

“It is easy to draw comparison with Faroe Islands where there is a parliament with the local powers and accountability. Their local politicians have made choices to deliver a programme of fixed links. In simple terms, Shetland does not have that opportunity. It is this type of opportunities we are looking to with self determination.”