18th August 2018
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Government offer of inter-island ferry takeover unlikely to be welcome in isles

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An offer by the Scottish government to take over inter-island ferry services run by Scottish councils is unlikely to find favour in Shetland, according to the chairman of the local transport agency ZetTrans.

Councillor Allan Wishart said the radical proposal put forward for consultation by Transport Scotland would be considered by ZetTrans and Shetland Islands Council but little time had been spent discussing it in the past.

“Everybody would be very loath to hand over control to outside Shetland,” he said on Wednesday. “Certainly we’re willing to hear what the detailed proposals might be and respond to that in due course but I think the service we provide is quite unique and unique to each island.”

He would be very defensive of the system in place just now but added: “If they’re willing to improve it, at less cost to the council, then let’s have a look at it.”

The takeover idea is one of the main points of interest for Shetland in an 82-page Scottish Ferry Services draft plan for the next 10 years which was launched on Wednesday and put out to consultation until 30th March.

Transport minister Keith Brown said the government was not going to force councils to hand over their ferry services but there was interest in shedding the responsibility in some places, such as parts of the west of Scotland where Highland Council and Argyll & Bute Council operate some routes.

There has also been talk of NorthLink taking on the inter-island ferries in Orkney, which are mainly Kirkwall-based and do not run frequently all day like the four main services in Shetland.
Most West of Scotland ferry routes are effectively already run by the government through its company CalMac.

The council’s head of transport Michael Craigie was in Edinburgh this week and had not had the chance to digest the detail of the draft plan. But he thought the financial arrangements for any transfer would mean the council losing a chunk of government funding along with its control over the ferry service.

He did not expect there would be clamour for such a change in Shetland. “It’s more relevant to those authorities that have expressed an interest in exploring with the government alternative methods of delivery where the ownership passes back to the government.”

Mr Wishart recalled that the last internal ferry system in Shetland run by the government was the Earl of Zetland. “We certainly don’t want to go back to that,” he said.

Another consultation proposal which will attract debate is the government’s renewed commitment to applying road equivalent tariff to all ferry routes instead of just the pilot scheme to the Western Isles.

The minister said: “We believe the RET underpins the way forward for ferry fares and we plan to replace the current route-specific nature of fare-setting with RET as the basis for fares for passengers and cars.”

The plan contains a proposal for talks with the SIC about applying RET to the inter-island ferries. However, proposals for introducing RET to the Aberdeen-Shetland route will not be implemented during the life of this parliament, which stretches until May 2016.

Mr Wishart said: “If there is a better system that improves things to the benefit of Shetland then let’s look at it. It would be very rash to throw these things out without proper consideration.”

After assessing the North Boats service the government found it to be “generally fit for purpose”, which has been reflected in the specifications of the new tender documents for the contract to run from 2012-18.

But the government is keen to hear the views of islanders as to what should happen with the service beyond that date, given that its ferries plan is to shape ferry services right through until 2022.

Among the options looked at and discounted by Transport Scotland were a separate shuttle ferry service between Shetland and Orkney and making the North Boats call every day at Kirkwall en-route to Aberdeen and Shetland.

As far as the level of service is concerned, both on the North Boat service and the inter-island ferries, Mr Craigie said there was a recognition by the government that it was working well.

“There is no great concern about any suggestion of cuts in service. They’ve established that what is provided is required in a modern society. We don’t see any threats there.”

He said a detailed report on the implications of Transport Scotland’s draft plan will be put before councillors and ZetTrans in the new year and proposals for consulting on Shetland’s response will be announced.

The minister said the government was committed to delivering improved services across Scotland over the next decade. “The future of our ferries is being shaped now and we would ask that those who cherish Scotland’s ferry services and want the very best for the provision of ferry services over the coming decade, let us hear their views now.”

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