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Council / Leaving isles short-changed on ferries ‘an untenable position’

Coutts and Thomson continue to press for fair funding

The Yell ferry Dagalien. Photo: SIC

LEADING SIC councillors queued up to leave the Scottish Government under no illusion that islanders expect its pledge to fully fund inter-island ferry services will be honoured ahead of next spring’s Holyrood elections. 

Council leader Steven Coutts and environment and transport committee chairman Ryan Thomson were among those to make a succession of pointed remarks in the direction of the SNP administration on Tuesday.

They issued a stern reminder that it has been several years since the government accepted the principle of “fair ferry funding” – yet when the 2020/21 budget was set in February the SIC was short-changed by over £4 million.

Thomson, who stood as an independent in the Holyrood by-election which saw Liberal Democrat Beatrice Wishart elected as MSP last year, said he “wouldn’t want the legacy for the Scottish Government to be… a failure to deliver full and fair funding” for Shetland.

Coutts acknowledged it increasingly felt “like Groundhog Day” but he would “make no apologies” for continuing to hammer home the same message at every possible opportunity.

Last winter the SIC sought £9.49 million to match what the government agreed was a “fair” level of ferries funding but was ultimately only given £5 million. Orkney Islands Council also received significantly less ferry funding than it was seeking.

For this coming financial year councillors have submitted a request for £10.7 million.

Coutts said: “There should be an understanding of what actually inter-island travel requirements are. This is a parliament that brought through what has been termed a ‘transformational’ islands act and a national islands plan.

“Do they get islands or don’t they? We’re still not at the stage where they treat all islands fairly, and that’s an untenable position.”

Shetland Central councillor Davie Sandison noted that new finance minister Kate Forbes was from an island community herself and “perhaps understands the issues around ferry funding and ferry provision more so than most”. He hoped that would “lead to a better outcome” in the 2021/22 budget.

Thomson said Forbes had visited the islands when she held a different ministerial portfolio and they had enjoyed a “very productive discussion”.

He urged Forbes to recognise that ferries were a lifeline link to healthcare and essential shopping for residents in Bressay, Fair Isle, Fetlar, Foula, Papa Stour, Skerries, Unst, Whalsay and Yell.

“For five years now the government have made a political choice not to [fully] fund the ferries. The money we’re using to plug that gap could be better spent on education, could be better spent on social care.”

Wrangling also continues on capital funding to upgrade the existing ferry fleet, with South Mainland member George Smith saying it was essential for Fair Isle to have a “fit for purpose” vessel – and specifically one that is able to accommodate people with disabilities.

Coutts said the “letter is still on the desk” of government ministers regarding a replacement for the Good Shepherd vessel which covers the Fair Isle route.