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Transport / Councillor calls wait for progress on replacement Fair Isle ferry ‘despicable’

The Good Shepherd IV.The Good Shepherd IV.

A SOUTH mainland councillor says it is “despicable” that residents of Fair Isle are still waiting on a new ferry.

Allison Duncan said at a meeting of the full Shetland Islands Council on Wednesday that the remote island is “suffering economically” because of the delay.

A business case for a replacement Fair Isle ferry, and associated harbour improvements, is said to be sitting on the desk of government ministers having been submitted by the council.

Local councillors have expressed frustration in recent weeks that no progress has been made on a new Good Shepherd ferry.

Work on the business case for the replacement ferry was concluded by the council in September last year.

The matter raised its head again at Wednesday’s meeting as councillors signed off its audited accounts for the last financial year.

Councillor Allison Duncan. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

Duncan said it was frustrating that two new ferries for the West Coast are being built for government agency CMAL while there remains no update on a new Fair Isle ferry.

“They had a very bad experience when they lost the Fair Isle Bird Observatory through that unfortunate fire, and now they’re suffering economically again, because they don’t have a replacement ferry for the 31-year-old Good Shepherd IV which is working at this moment in time,” he said.

Duncan said he understands that the “Fair Isle boat is lying on a desk somewhere in Holyrood waiting for them to give us just a pittance of what they already said that they’re going to give for the completion of their two vessels in their new nationalised yard”.

“I think it’s despicable that they can’t at least look after one of our remote islands by giving them the boat that they justly deserve.”

As has often been the case the issue of ‘fair’ ferry funding from the Scottish Government raised its head during the debate.

It came after external auditors Deloitte said its annual report that it is “unreasonable for the council to continue to assume that it will receive the full amounts requested when drafting future budgets and MTFPs [medium term financial plans]”.

For 2020/21 the council requested just shy of £9.5 million for running its ferries but it received around £5 million.

Deloitte said it was satisfied that the amount sought by the council was “reasonable” and that it has “acted in good faith, demonstrated good collaboration and engagement […] and [the SIC] worked closely with the Scottish Government in order to progress this issue”.

Chairman of the environment and transport committee councillor Ryan Thomson said the “full amount requested is the full amount required”.

He said deficit in funding is having an effect across all services, not just transport.

“This council should not have to pay for an essential lifeline service that other councils do not,” Thomson said.

Lerwick member John Fraser, meanwhile, noted a correlation between an increasing use of council reserves and decreased government funding, in addition to the ferries being more expensive to run.

He then took aim at a comment made by councillor Stephen Leask in a debate earlier this month on exploring financial and political self-determination for Shetland in which he said the isles do quite well regarding funding per head from the Scottish Government.

“No, we do not actually do quite well, and no, we do not have to be more accepting of what we actually get,” Fraser said.

Leask replied by saying that Duncan was correct in that there must be “significant” funding for capital projects.

But he said he took exception to Fraser’s comments.

Referring to a recent TV interview with SIC convener Malcolm Bell on self-determination, Leask said he could “quote people that have been on Sky News […] saying the people of Shetland have a good standard of living, similar to the Faroe Islands”.

Shetland Central councillor Ian Scott, meanwhile, “it’s a bit like Groundhog Day”.

He said every local authority in Scotland says “in one way or another” they are being poorly funded.

Scott claimed that Shetland “voted for austerity and cutting public services” – referring to the Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition government in place in Westminster between 2010 and 2015.

Lerwick member Amanda Hawick, meanwhile, added that she was left confused as to how other local authorities were receiving full funding for ferries and Shetland was not.

She referred to the money from the oil industry creating multi-million pound reserves for the council and Shetland Charitable Trust.

“But here we are today,” Hawick said, “and it’s quite clear that our audit has clearly indicated that we need to sort our medium term financial plan […] it’s not been done and elections are coming up soon.

“The council has been slowly going further and further into arrears and the deficit is getting further.”

Hawick said with Shetland playing host to Sullom Voe Terminal and Viking Energy in the future, she is unsure how the isles has the levels of working poverty and fuel poverty that it does.

In response to the concerns over funding for ferries, a spokesperson for Transport Scotland said on Thursday: “Local authorities are wholly responsible for their own internal ferry services, but we understand the significant financial challenges they can face.

“Additional funding of £11.5m for local authority ferry services has been allocated within the 2020/21 budget.

“This is an increase on the previous year in a challenging financial context and brings total support £32.5m over the past three years.

“Internal ferries funding pressures as a result of Covid-19 should be considered as part of a wider ask from local authorities on Covid-19 related cost impacts.”