Scotland’s transport minister Keith Brown has tried to re-assure islanders about the Northern Isles ferry service after one of the bidders issued a legal challenge against the decision to award the £243 million contract to Serco.
Highlands and Islands parliamentarians including Orkney MSP Liam McArthur and SNP list MSP Jean Urquhart are due to meet Mr Brown this afternoon for a full briefing on the situation. The scheduled handover from NorthLink to Serco on 6th July appears to be in some jeopardy.
Mr Brown said he was “disappointed” after learning that Streamline was challenging the outcome, but expressed “every confidence in the procurement process”. He said he looked forward to seeing a “speedy resolution” to the dispute.
He continued: “In the meantime, I can assure the people of Orkney and Shetland that contingency plans are being put in place to ensure there is no disruption to their ferry service.
“Building on the work of the current operator – NorthLink Ferries Ltd – over the past few years, we are taking the Northern Isles ferry service forward. The new contract will maintain a 90 minute service between Scrabster and Stromness, prevent any repetition of the extended dry dock periods experienced this year and improve the passenger experience.”
Notably, Mr Brown did not say that the existing level of freight service – with two vessels – would be maintained. Fishing and agriculture companies among others in Shetland have been seeking re-assurance on this.
The Streamline Group’s managing director Gareth Crichton, a former NorthLink employee, said earlier this week that feedback the company received suggested that the government had not compared “like with like” when awarding the contract to Serco. That prompted Streamline to lodge a legal challenge with the Court of Session in Edinburgh.
On Monday, Shetland MSP Tavish Scott – who is back in Shetland for tomorrow’s opening of the Scalloway Museum – urged the government to “sort out this mess”. He fears that if pen is not put to paper on the new six-year contract by the end of this week, it could create a “dangerous” situation for the ferry service’s future.