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Transport / Former SIC leader advocates more local control over external transport

A FORMER council leader has suggested the Scottish Government’s islands act could be a way to try to “repatriate” control of external ferry services to Shetland.

Gary Robinson spoke up in favour of the idea at a meeting of Lerwick Community Council on Monday evening.

The islands act allows local authorities to request for “additional powers” to be transferred from the government.

Gary Robinson.

Prior to the request being made, the local authority must be “satisfied that it can demonstrate reasonable cause” for asking for the proposed additional power, and it is up to Scottish ministers to determine the fate of the application.

The NorthLink passenger and freight ferry service, which links Shetland to Orkney and Aberdeen, is operated by Serco – one of the world’s largest private provider of public services – and funded by the Scottish Government.

Robinson, who was SIC leader before losing out in the 2017 council election, said he felt there needed to be a conversation about how Shetland’s ferry service south will look in the future.

He conceded that he did not have a “huge amount” of confidence in government agency Transport Scotland, which has repeatedly come under fire from local industry over freight capacity.

The community council meeting heard further concern over passenger ferry capacity in peak times, which has also been a long-running issue for Shetlanders.

“I think our external transport is one that we really should be looking at,” Robinson said about the islands act opportunities.

He added that Shetland seems to get a “raw deal” from the NorthLink service, using the current dry dock schedule as an example – with the community councillor claiming Orkney is less affected.

“I think there is scope to really see if we can try to do something better in terms of service,” Robinson said, suggesting that local transport partnership ZetTrans could be a good avenue for dialogue.

He believed it would be worth exploring if there is an opportunity to have the ferry service “specified in Shetland, if not run in Shetland”.

Robinson said other island groups across the world have a similar set-up.

Lerwick councillor Amanda Hawick meanwhile said the situation with capacity was “diabolical” at times.

This has included people being unable to access a cabin for the overnight trip, or there being not enough space in the car deck for a vehicle.

The community council heard about situations where people could travel on the passenger ferry but have their car go on the freight vessel – which would arrive in Aberdeen at a different time.

But there was high praise for the ferries’ staff and dog friendly cabins – as well as the beef olives served on board, with councillor John Fraser complimenting the quality of food offered up by the chefs.

Robinson also welcomed that Serco NorthLink often amends sailing times in poor weather rather than cancel the sailing.

The discussion was held ahead of a meeting of Shetland’s external transport forum this week, but Anderson suggested writing to NorthLink to relay the concerns from the community.