SHETLAND’s sole SNP councillor says news that the local authority’s funding deficit for running its inter-island ferries is to be plugged should be acknowledged as a “major result” for the isles.
It was confirmed in the Scottish Government’s draft budget yesterday (Thursday) that extra money would be coming Shetland Islands Council’s way in 2021/22 to pay for the revenue cost of running the ferries.
The council was facing a £5.5 million deficit but that will no longer be the case, should the budget be approved by MSPs.
The SNP government’s decision to fully fund ferries now, and not in previous years, has led to accusations from some that the timing stems from a hope to win more votes in the upcoming Scottish Parliament election in May.
While she welcomed the announcement, Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said it was “quite the coincidence it has come about months before an election”.
In response, Shetland South councillor Robbie McGregor – who represents the SNP – said his only focus was on the benefit to the isles.
“My only interest is Shetland,” he said.
“Shetland comes first in my book and this is a major result and should be acknowledged as such.”
McGregor said that “at every opportunity” he has been engaging with ministers at SNP meetings to point out that the money was needed in Shetland.
“But it’s been a team thing – I’ve had some input into it, council officers had input into it, the leadership has had input. Between us, we’ve all got a result,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to the budget discussions now in the council, because it’s not going to be as doom and gloom as it might have been.”
Both the Shetland and Orkney councils first started receiving extra payments for running their ferries back in 2018.
Until now Shetland Islands Council’s requests have fallen short of the settlement given, leaving a funding a gap.
The budget for the next financial year ensures that both Shetland and Orkney are fully funded to run their internal ferry services, as well as Argyll and Bute.
McGregor added that he is “looking forward to [Orkney and Shetland Liberal Democrat MSPs] Liam McArthur and Beatrice Wishart now coming out publicly saying they’re going to support the Scottish budget” to confirm the ferry funding for the Northern Isles.
As the SNP hold a minority government in Holyrood the party needs extra votes to pass through the budget.
McGregor has also made the case to his SNP colleagues that funding needs to come Shetland’s way for a replacement ferry for Fair Isle, which is part of his constituency.
Shetland Islands Council is also looking for funding for a new vessel for Whalsay.
McGregor said the issue of the Fair Isle ferry, which is effectively sitting on the Scottish Government’s desk, is “still ongoing”.
“We’ve got a result with this so the capital is the next thing,” he said.
“Two ferries are needing urgently replaced, and a lot of the other ferries are old as well. There has to be something put in place long-term.”
Chairman of the SIC’s environment and transport committee, independent councillor Ryan Thomson, said the funding news was “very welcome”.
He paid tribute to the council staff who have worked on the case for the last number of years.
“This will be a great relief not only to those who were living on the islands, for which this is their lifeline service, but to the public of Shetland,” Thomson said.
“The SIC and ZetTrans have worked constructively for numerous years with the Scottish Government in a bid to deliver full and fair funding, and thanks to the hard work of council staff, we have reached a mutually satisfactory conclusion to the benefit of both the government, and the people of Shetland.
“We continue to face a significant capital challenge when it comes to our ageing fleet. We will continue to work closely, constructively and collaboratively with government to find a solution to this problem.”
Meanwhile, the local branch of the Scottish Greens also welcomed the commitment from the government saying the party’s Orkney councillor Steve Sankey, in conjunction with the three island councils, had played a crucial part in the negotiations.
Shetland Greens list candidate for the Highlands and Islands Debra Nicolson said on Friday: “For many years the knock-on effect of having to fund the deficit in ferry funding has caused significant budgetary pressures on other services throughout Shetland.
“This has been grossly unfair, particularly when compared to the huge increases in funding afforded to Calmac.”
“And while this is very good news, we can now turn our attention to the replacement process for our aging ferry fleet and infrastructure.
“It’s essential that any replacement proposals commit to a renewable fuel component, be it hydrogen, ammonia or electric, so that we can greatly reduce the high carbon emissions that affect our marine transport sector and subsequently the environment.”
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