The Inter Island Ferries Board met this week with representatives of the Scottish government Ferries Division.
The meeting was part of the government’s Ferries Review and gave the board an opportunity to present the points members wished to be considered.
The main concerns raised by councillors with representatives Judith Ainsley and Bob Watson were over fuel poverty and fares and, specifically, the impact these have on rural areas where depopulation is already a sensitive factor.
Councillor Caroline Miller, a resident of Bressay and therefore directly affected by the ferry services, began by pointing out that in areas such as Bressay, ferry fares often take a large portion of people’s weekly earnings.
Vulnerable groups, she added, such as the elderly who rely on a pension and young people, who may not earn a lot, were the worst hit by this. These groups were disadvantaged by the fact they have to travel to Lerwick for most things, such as the doctor, hospital, education and employment.
North Isles councillor Josie Simpson agreed, stating that commuters too had to be taken into consideration. The cost of commuting from the isles is so much that many people, especially the young, choose to move instead, an aspect which was damaging the already fragile population of outlying areas.
Cllr Simpson said: “The most pressing factor is to keep young people in the North Isles. There is an ageing population as people don’t want to commute and end up moving to places like Lerwick. It’s very important to look after the rural communities.”
Also representing the North Isles, councillor Laura Baisley added that many communities had the population they currently have as a result of previously cheaper fares and that consideration should be given to what might happen to the “commuter culture” should the fares continue to increase.
Member for Shetland south (including Fair Isle) Rick Nickerson said in many areas the ferries were lifeline services and there should be greater equality and an “even playing field” between funds for ferries and roads and bridges in other parts of the country.
Cllr Nickerson said: “Our waterways are our highways and central government – both in London and Edinburgh – perhaps forget this.”
Affordability and the means of providing cheaper fares was also discussed, with infrastructure services chief executive Gordon Greenhill pointing out that while the level of service in Shetland is excellent, the question of how to pay for it is always an issue and that ferries often miss out on the consideration given to roads and bridges elsewhere.