SHETLAND Islands Council can expect to receive an extra £5.5 million to help run its inter-island ferries over the coming financial year – meaning that the local authority will not have a shortfall in funding for running the service.
During her draft budget announcement in parliament on Thursday finance secretary Kate Forbes confirmed that her budget proposal includes a £19.2 million allocation of revenue funding for local authorities to run internal ferry services.
That is £7.7 million more than was made available in last year’s budget. The finance secretary said that the money should ensure local authorities were fully funded to run their inter-island ferry services.
Islands authorities in Shetland and Orkney have lobbied the Scottish Government for years to receive full and fair ferry funding.
Last year, councillors were left hugely disappointed when just £5 million in extra funding was earmarked for the SIC rather than the £9.5 million they had asked for. Next financial year’s shortfall was projected to be £5.5 million.
The funding announced on Thursday also facilitates the introduction of Sunday services and Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) on Orkney’s inter-island ferries.
The news was welcomed by local, government and opposition politicians as well as parliamentary candidates.
Shetland Islands Council leader Steven Coutts said he was delighted to hear this news and added that the inter-island ferry service was the “social and economic backbone” of local communities.
“We have made our case to the Scottish Government, and the Scottish Government has listened and acted. That is all we can ask,” he said.
“We still face a significant capital challenge – almost half of our ferries are over 30 years old, and two need replaced urgently – but we will be creative and constructive in our efforts to meet that challenge.”
SNP Highlands and Islands MSP Maree Todd described the move by her party as a “positive development” that “delivers on a key ask from local authority partners at a time of unprecedented financial pressure”.
She added: “Whilst it is the local authority that is wholly responsible for the ferry services they provide, the SNP government is sympathetic to the financial pressures which fall on individual local authorities, which we know have been heightened as a result of Covid-19.
“I’d like to give a mention to cllr Robbie McGregor and his colleagues in Shetland who have made the positive case for additional funding to support inter-island ferries in recent months.
“It’s worth pointing out that for a long time, local authorities received no funding from the Scottish Government to support inter-island ferries, it is only under the SNP that this has changed and increased over the years.
“Considering the draft Budget meets a key ask from the Liberal Democrats, I hope to see the party get behind the budget and support it through Parliament.”
Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart also welcomed that the isles are set to receive additional funding for internal ferry services.
The Lib Dem politician said: “Shetland’s representatives have diligently and consistently campaigned for fair funding for Shetland’s ferries for years and it is welcome that progress is finally being made.
“The First Minister at the last election five years ago promised ‘fair funding’. I’m pleased to now see additional money. However it is the quite the coincidence it has come about months before an election. Shetland has been consistently short-changed and as a result there has been a considerable difference between what Shetland asked for and received from the Government.
“Significant work still needs to be done to modernise Shetland transport links and that will need great commitment from government over the coming years. I am committed to that modernisation campaign.”
SNP’s Shetland candidate for the May election Tom Wills said: “This additional funding is very welcome at a time when the council’s finances are under serious pressure. Credit is due to Robbie and the other councillors who have made a positive and measured case for additional support for our internal ferry services.
“Shetland is one of the most prosperous local authorities in the country and we are all very fortunate to live in a place with such a high quality of life.
“Of course there is still much that needs to be done and I don’t imagine this news will be long out before the fractious ferry funding debate moves on to the issue of capital funding for fleet replacements and fixed links.
“That debate is needed, but it needn’t be so heated. There is a perfectly rational case to be made that, given Shetland’s contribution to the Scottish economy, the Scottish Government should be investing more in Shetland’s transport infrastructure.
“That case should however be made with due consideration of the exceptionally challenging financial situation that the Scottish Government is dealing with.”
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