By JOHN ROBERTSON
FREE ferries between Unst, Fetlar and Yell are to continue until April at least because the council is worried about the impact of suddenly starting to charge on Bluemull Sound again.
When fares were scrapped three years ago to help the beleaguered Unst economy the council stopped keeping a record of travellers on the sound so it no longer knows accurately who is using the service and why.
Head of transport Michael Craigie said he was reluctant to recommend fares be reintroduced without knowing what to expect. He told the SIC inter-island ferries board: “If we make knee-jerk changes there will be consequences we don’t understand.”
The RAF has gone from Unst and people’s travel habits have changed, not least because a free service encourages more traffic and people have made good use of extra runs provided.
The intention had been to impose fares again in April this year but that was knocked back to 19th October while a study of fares on all SIC routes was taking place.
On Friday, Mr Craigie told the board further delay was needed because he wants an estimate of how much the council can expect to earn from re-imposing fares. Money needs someone to collect it and not having that extra crewman on each shift has been saving the council around £100,000 a year. He does not know if income from fares would cover the crewing costs.
He said fares might result in a “lose, lose, lose situation” under which communities were saddled with an extra cost while their runs were cut and the council made no more money.
While traveller numbers can be gleaned from logbooks it is not possible to tell where travellers were going or why they were travelling. Gathering the data needed will take months but Mr Craigie said it might be ready around the end of December, to be considered by the board in January.
It will be no surprise if the board keeps voting against fares, given that four of its nine members either represent the North Isles or come from there. However, their wishes may ultimately be overruled by the majority of the 22 members who are Mainland dwellers.
Board chairman Robert Henderson, who lives in Cullivoe, told the board Unst and Fetlar were fragile and their inhabitants should not have to pay twice to get to Lerwick.
Fetlar-bred councillor Andrew Hughson backed those sentiments and suggested swipe cards could be issued to residents because it was them the council wanted to help rather than subsidising tourists with free or cheap fares. Councillor Rick Nickerson suggested charging tourists higher fares because they tend to turn up and pay whatever the charge is.
During discussion of £60 ferry fares in the Western Isles, Yell-based councillor Laura Baisley, who once lived in Fetlar and worked in Unst, said a culture of cheap ferry fares had been created in Shetland which was markedly different from other island groups. To bring in anything like that to Shetland would, she said, destroy the island economies.
Mr Henderson added: “That’s surely going to be the best way known to empty the isles.”