Concerned residents plead their case over cuts to ferry services
Worried Unst residents gathered in Baltasound Hall on Wednesday night to plead with Shetland Islands Council not to make excessive cuts to the island’s vital ferry links.
There was barely an empty seat to be had as around 100 people, a sizeable chunk of the island’s population, gathered for one of a series of consultations held this week.
Unst Community Council chairman Laurence Robertson described it as “one of the most important meetings we’ll ever attend”.
People in Unst, perhaps more so than other remote communities, feel they have already absorbed a savage hit from council cutbacks. The doors to one of the island’s two primary schools, at Uyeasound, shut a year ago. Its population has slid markedly following the RAF’s departure from Saxa Vord.
After sanctioning a £1 million savings package with “little or no effect” on ferry services, councillors next month sit down to discuss a further £2.8 million of cuts. The council staged public consultations in Fair Isle, Whalsay and Yell this week, as well as Unst, to gather feedback before final proposals are drawn up.
Those present in Baltasound on Wednesday implored councillors not to take action which might jeopardise a booming summer tourist trade, impede commuting to Sullom Voe or drive lucrative aquaculture businesses away from the North Isles.
The council contingent made the two-hour journey north only too aware that islanders were likely to object to the message they had to deliver.
Following a previous round of ferry consultations in June, newly-appointed head of finance James Gray raked over the local authority’s books and discovered its financial woes were much greater than previously thought.
Councillors’ new spending strategy resulted in the savings required from ferries mushrooming from £1.7 million to around £3 million in order to balance the budget. Of the £13 million spent on ferries, roughly half comes from Edinburgh and only a tenth or so from fare income.
The 110-minute exchange was not as heated as some school closure consultations in recent years. But Unst folk articulated a well-rehearsed case: cut our ferries too deeply, they say, and people will begin deserting the islands in their droves.
Residents were opposed to either the Yell Sound or Bluemull Sound routes being stripped back to a single ferry.
“A total non-starter”, according to one woman. “Completely unworkable”, said another.
Less drastic options include reducing the Geira’s operating hours on Bluemull Sound, though that would only save £50,000 compared to over half a million pounds from cutting back to a single vessel.
On Yell Sound, a more palatable alternative would see the second ferry running only during peak hours on weekday mornings. But that would leave a solitary ferry when people are travelling home at teatime. “How’s that going to work without creating a bottleneck?” one woman asked.
Mr Crossland admitted the ferry service enjoyed by North Isles folk following the cuts simply “won’t be as good”. He said: “You cannot do this and make savings without impacting on the way people travel. That’s the blunt and honest answer.”
There did appear to be a recognition that some aspects of the service will have to change. The preference seemed to be that, if sailings must go, those very late at night should be targeted. Most also seemed content for the council to cease manning ferries overnight.
Most popular of all was the idea of introducing a “discriminatory” fare structure, a scenario whereby island residents benefit from cheap ferry travel and the SIC generates much more income from those – especially tourists – visiting places like Unst.
The audience outlined how tourism has been the island’s big success story of late. Saxa Vord’s converted holiday accommodation is now filling up from April to October, whereas previously the visitor season only lasted around four months.
One tour guide said holidaymakers visiting Unst were frequently “astounded” to learn there was no ferry charge. “They’re amazed, it’s ridiculous,” she said.
A passenger taking a car across both Yell Sound and Bluemull Sound pays a total return fare of £10, and she doubted tourists would blanch if that figure was trebled.
With smarter ticket machines to be introduced, Mr Crossland said the council was looking at all sorts of options for fare pricing. That could mean discounted rates and season tickets for island residents.
Officials were reminded that any changes to ferries must take account of how people earn a living – whether ensuring residents can still commute to Sullom Voe, or laying on adequate ferries to cope with the large volume of seafood exported to Lerwick and beyond.
With oil and gas industry jobs likely to be “ten-a-penny” in the next five years, resident Leonard Spence pointed out that such employers needed reliable staff. He suggested job applications containing an Unst postcode would be unattractive amid uncertainty over the future of ferries.
Mr Spence said it was imperative that a post-cuts ferry timetable allowed Sullom Voe staff to get in and out if they worked irregular shift patterns. He also urged the council to ensure Unst residents can get home past 10pm so they can continue to access sport and other leisure activities.
The council is attempting to assess the social and economic effects of its proposals by contacting isles’ businesses. Several people pointed out that firms have not received questionnaires allowing them to provide feedback.
Mr Crossland offered an assurance that if the necessary data was not available, he would not present a “half-hearted job” to councillors and next month’s report would have to be delayed.
Retired physics teacher Martin Gill won plenty of murmurs of approval for suggesting the council was far too Lerwick-centric. He said its investment in Mareel, many of whose evening events are logistically out of bounds for isles folk, indicated where priorities lay. “What are you doing to reassure people you are being even-handed, and people in the North Isles are not taking more than their fair share [of cuts]?” he asked.
SIC environment and transport committee chairman Allan Wishart was eager to impress that it was not a case of “Lerwick versus rural areas”.
Mr Wishart said the local authority could “only reduce costs where it’s spending the most money”. In an effort to dispel the notion that the SIC does not look after remote areas, he has asked officials to dig out figures demonstrating how much it spends per head of population in each area of Shetland.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Wishart said he felt it had been a constructive session. He was encouraged that there appeared to be a consensus developing in favour of different fare levels for island residents and tourists, and an acceptance that some less busy sailings could be struck off the timetable.
“Whether that is enough at this stage or not, I don’t know,” he said. “It indicates a realisation that there will be change, but it’s trying to get that change with the least impact possible.”