A ROW has broken out over government plans to impose above inflation fare increases for ferry services to the Northern Isles.
Shetland MSP and former transport minister Tavish Scott has criticised Holyrood ministers for ignoring recommendations by their own officials to keep fare hikes for Orkney and Shetland pegged to inflation.
Instead they have insisted on an extra half per cent to help cover the recent rises in fuel costs. Because both NorthLink and Caledonian MacBrayne are state-owned, exactly how much they charge passengers to travel on their vessels has become something of a political football.
The government has defended the move, despite claims by Mr Scott that the Northern Isles are being used to prop up the service offered to the Western Isles, where ferry fares have been frozen until 2010 as part of the controversial Road Equivalent Tariff pilot scheme.
A government spokesman said customers would only face a “marginal” increase in costs, despite the services absorbing huge bills over the last year.
On Tuesday NorthLink confirmed the new cost of a fare at peak time for two adults with a car and two children, staying in a four berth cabin, would cost £490.92 – a price increase of just £1.42.
A spokesman for the company said the move would only generate something like £100,000 of additional income, against a subsidy of £30 million a year. Mr Scott said the price hike would still impact on residents in the isles.
“NorthLink’s services to Shetland and Orkney are vital lifeline services. Any increases in fares hits islanders and island residents hard.
“Inflation linked increases, tied to the CPI (consumer price index), have to be accepted, but for ministers to add an extra 0.5 per cent on top is not acceptable.
“Even if the price of oil was still high, it would not be acceptable, but for it to be left after oil prices tumble, is a scandal.
“While the Northern Isles face above inflation ferry fare increases, the Western Isles see no increase at all to their fares which have already been slashed by the targeted RET pilot.
“Islanders in the Northern Isles, and also in the Argyll islands excluded from the RET pilot, will feel that they are subsidising the Western Isles.
“SNP ministers presumably hope that their special treatment of the Western Isles will help them to hang onto their parliamentary seats there. “But islanders on Scotland’s other islands will not forget this when they pay above inflation fare increases next year nor when they vote.” His comments were backed by head of the SIC’s transport partnership ZetTrans, Allan Wishart, who said the increase was not worth imposing. He said he had met with NorthLink and government officials at a recent meeting in Orkney to discuss the plans.
“The answer from NorthLink was they were quite happy with the originally stated increase, which was 3.3 per cent, but the government themselves said they needed the extra 0.5 per cent to cover the cost of fuel.
“In the end we came to a full stop. We’ve written to the minister and advised Tavish [Scott] of this.
“Given the difference between Shetland and Orkney and the Western Isles – where they don’t have to have a percentage increase until 2010 because of RET – we think it’s disappointing.
“It doesn’t seem like much, but if that’s the case why introduce it? What’s the point of another 0.5 per cent?
“The effect is not going to be very much, but it’s not just for this year – that 0.5 per cent goes on year after year after year.
“We are one of the most remote islands and we pay the highest fares.”
A spokesman for the Scottish government said: “The cost of fuel has increased significantly during the current financial year and the Scottish government has largely absorbed these costs with only a marginal increase in fares for users.”
He disputed Mr Scott’s claims the extra costs were being used to prop up the service to the Western Isles.
“While initially focusing a pilot on the Western Isles, we want this test case to pave the way for cheaper fares for all our island communities.
“We are monitoring the pilot closely and fine-tuning it as necessary to ensure this scheme delivers maximum benefits to all.
“An initial study into potential socio-economic impacts of the introduction of the proposed RET approach found Shetland residents already receive a significant discount in fares through subsidy and the route has a lower fare per mile than other islands.
“Under the proposed RET system the fares on the routes serving Shetland would be higher than current fares for both commercial vehicles and cars.”
He added fares for passengers would not be any lower than those currently paid by Shetland residents under the RET scheme.
“This suggests that only passenger fares for non residents are likely to fall under RET.
“If this is the case then RET on its own may not have any significant impact on the economic performance and social wellbeing of Shetland.”