Shetland is at risk of being left out of the loop as key decisions over a future ferry service to and from the isles are made by civil servants in Edinburgh.
Concerns have been raised that confidentiality clauses mean SIC transport officials will not be able to see the bids for the lifeline route to the mainland in time before the new deal is awarded later this year.
Members of the transport partnership ZetTrans today heard officials will only be privy to information if there are issues civil servants want to highlight or seek information on.
A report by head of transport Michael Craigie said ZetTrans officials had signed a confidentiality agreement which prevents discussion of any detail outwith meetings with civil servants.
The partnership’s newly appointed chairman, Allan Wishart, said he felt “uneasy” about the process.
“We’ll only get to know the details when it’s a fait accompli, and it places a lot of responsibility on the officers who are attending there.”
He said there was a lot of work being done which Shetland had no control over.
And he added a meeting in December with civil servants had done little to boost his confidence. Ignorance remained, he said, over how important a fast and efficient ferry service was to the shellfish industry, which needs to export time-critical goods.
Addressing members, Mr Craigie said: “We won’t see the bids that are submitted by the bidders. We only see what elements the government officers want to clarify with us, if any.”
Caroline Miller wondered how much confidence there was that the government officials involved could handle things sensibly.
Mr Craigie answered: “There’s always a risk when people not close to issues are dealing with something that doesn’t have an impact on them.
“I don’t have any criticism of the officers involved, but there is a risk when individuals are not intimately involved or aware of the key issues.
“With the commercial confidentiality that surrounds it, it’s difficult to see another way of doing it.
“We need to be aware we’re relying, to a large degree, on the interpretation of people in Edinburgh.”
The council’s political leader Josie Simpson said the message had to be made clear that the service needed to improve. He pointed to the recent spat with Orkney over the drydocking arrangements, which had not ended up benefiting Shetland at all.
Members also hoped the contract, when it is awarded, would be “flexible” enough to reflect any changes in demand as the economic picture in and around the isles changes in the years ahead.
Inflexibility is one of the criticisms of the existing NorthLink agreement.
Mr Craigie promised to “make it clear to the government in formal terms” the thoughts of the transport group.
So far six companies have thrown their hats in the ring for the next North Boats contract. They are NorthLink, former operators P&O Ferries, international services firm Serco, Shetland Line and Norwegian operator Sea-Cargo.