Cuts to ferry timetables, a reduction in crew numbers and the removal of one of the two ferries on the Yell Sound route are among proposals being suggested ahead of a radical overhaul of inter-island ferry services.
The SIC has unveiled a series of ideas in the lead-up to 14 public drop-in sessions to discuss how cuts of just over £2 million can be made to its infrastructure budget. The consultations kick off in Symbister next Thursday and run into early July.
While the public are also being asked for their views on plans to make cutbacks to road maintenance, street lighting, rural public toilets and community skips, the overwhelming bulk of the savings – £1.7 million – will come from ferries.
Among the most far-reaching measures up for debate are: the council building its own dry dock; outsourcing some or all routes to private companies or social enterprises; handing control over inter-island ferries to the Scottish government; and reviewing the entire structure of fares.
The detail comes after North Isles councillor Robert Henderson this week warned that his constituency could become devoid of young folk if ferry service cuts are too steep.
Speaking during Wednesday’s environment and transport committee meeting, he said councillors must take a “long hard look” at the implications before cutting services to fragile island groups.
“Isles folk consider they are a forgotten area,” Mr Henderson said. “There is a fear in the isles that if ferry services are cut, they will be tied to their home patch for a significant part of the day. Young people will be the first to vote with their feet.”
A breakdown of the £12.94 million ferries budget for 2012/13 shows that the Yell Sound route is the most expensive, with a £3.76 million price tag. It is also the route which could yield the biggest chunk of savings.
Removing overnight manning on the Toft-Ulsta run would save an estimated £460,000 a year. Alternatively, operating a single vessel on a “peak time quick turn around” timetable and either selling or mothballing the second ferry would provide an annual saving just shy of £700,000.
The route in and out of Symbister costs £2.79 million a year. Whalsay folk could see their schedule cut to leave each of the route’s two vessels running 12-hour days – one working a straight 12-hour shift and the other on a “split shift pattern”, which would allow for both boats to be running at peak times.
Fares were removed on the Bluemull Sound run, which links Unst and Fetlar with Yell, in 2006 as part of efforts to bolster the ailing Unst economy following the RAF’s departure. Reintroducing fares is a possible option there.
Skerries’ ferry link absorbs £1.49 million a year. While some ideas have already been ditched, those still on the table include sailing to a nearer port than Lerwick and reconfiguring the timetable to remove “dead legs” – where ferry sailings are made to ensure the vessel is stationed at the right port for its next scheduled run.
The short hop between Lerwick and Bressay costs £1.36 million annually. Reducing the required crew from five to four would cut the number of full-time staff from 17 to 14, saving an estimated £157,000 a year. The idea of replacing the Leirna with a chain ferry is described as “unlikely”.
Papa Stour (annual cost £595,000) could lose one sailing a week, while Foula might lose its summer sailings to Scalloway. Operation of the Fair Isle route (annual cost £460,000) could be outsourced. The idea of combining services to the outer islands has been shelved as it was deemed impractical and unlikely to result in savings.
Fortnightly summer sailings from Fair Isle to Lerwick could be replaced by shorter journeys to Grutness. An approach could be made to the National Trust for Scotland to see if some form of subsidy can be negotiated.
The dry dock option has been bobbing around in various guises for several years. Officials acknowledge this would come at a “significant” capital cost, but having its own shipyard would reduce the amount of time SIC ferries spend out of action and consequently reduce the need to retain two relief ferries. The way the council buys in the services of UK shipyards for dry docking could be reviewed.
A review of the fare structure could result in some users paying less, as well as more. Officials want to look at “how we can exploit the willingness and ability of tourists” to pay higher fares.
Working hours for anyone contracted for more than 37 hours a week could be reduced. Other broad areas set to come under the microscope are crewing levels, vessel deployment, stand-by and call-out provision, community runs and the need to retain relief vessels.
Moving to a single, centralised booking service would save the local authority an estimated £28,000. The more radical option of doing away with a Ro-Ro booking service altogether – with the exception of Fair Isle, due to the “specific nature and requirements” of that route – could shave £103,000 a year off the budget.
A reduced service on public holidays, including Easter Monday and the day after Up-Helly-A’, is up for discussion. So is reconsidering the number of sailings over the festive period. Lower end measures include saving £2,600 by removing public radio and television from ferries.
Information packs for each area will be placed in shops and leisure centres in the main islands from tomorrow. A dozen public drop-in sessions to discuss the potential cuts begins in Whalsay, before moving on to Mid Yell next Friday and then Unst the following Monday. There are also to be events in Bressay, Walls, Fetlar, Lerwick, Cunningsburgh, Brae, Scalloway, Tingwall and Papa Stour between now and early July.
Officials and councillors are trying to hammer home the message that diminishing oil reserves, increased costs and poorer returns on the SIC’s stock market investments mean its spending still “far outstrips” its available resources.
Despite saving £11.5 million last year – more than £2 million higher than planned – through “internal efficiencies”, the local authority operated at a loss of around £100,000 a day.