Bressay people will be able to buy monthly passenger and vehicle passes on the ferry to and from Lerwick, the council agreed this week.
The passenger card will cost £35 while the vehicle card will set people back £100, including 20 car journeys as well as unlimited foot travel providing they already have a passenger card. Currently it costs £3.40 for a return passenger ticket, or alternatively people can buy a strip of 10 return trips for £16.20. A return ticket for a car and driver costs £8 or £63.60 for 10 return journeys. The fares are expected to be introduced shortly and will last for three years.
There was much debate over the issue at Tuesday’s meeting of the SIC infrastructure committee, where Lerwick North councillor Caroline Miller put up an impassioned plea on behalf of her fellow Bressay residents, while North Isles members Robert Henderson and Josie Simpson both pointed out the hardships their own constituents had to face.
Mrs Miller reminded the meeting that in 1995 the council had decided that ferries were getting too expensive to run and wanted to double the fares. But the Bressay folk fought back and showed the folly of the plan, with fares only increasing in line with inflation from then on.
Later the islanders had agreed to the council’s proposal for a bridge to the island, she said, but it never happened. If it had there would have been a fixed link by 2007. Then two years ago the council changed its policy from a bridge to a tunnel but still nothing had happened.
A Scottish Transport Appraisal Guidance (STAG) report showed the social and economic hardship that Bressay folk had to face, Mrs Miller said, with the cost of staying there becoming prohibitive. People used their ferry four times as much as those in other isles, and it was getting to the stage where being able to live in the isle depended on the “political whims” of councillors.
“You have to look at Bressay as a unique situation,” she said, “and find a solution to a unique problem.”
Mrs Miller added that she was not sure whether to go for a “blanket reduction” in fares or move the recommendation in the report.
Chairman Allan Wishart said the recommendations had come about after discussion with the chairman and vice-chairman of Bressay Community Council.
Mr Simpson said he had pushed for a better fare system ever since he first came on the council, but nothing had been achieved so far.
“There are so many different ferry services in place as you go through the islands,” he said, “and so many variables and this is another one. I don’t know if this is the right way to go about this. We have to work out better timetables and better structures as what’s in place now.”
Mr Henderson sided with his North Isles colleague, pointing out that Bressay did not have a monopoly on hardship.
“You leave Bressay and you set your foot on Commercial Street,” he said. “[If] you live in the North Isles you have to spend money on fuel to get to the town. I agree with Josie. We have to look at the wider picture and find some way of sustaining the young people in the islands.”
Shetland West councillor Gary Robinson said it was not just islanders who found travel expensive, as it could cost up to £8 a day to drive into town from Walls or Sandness.
Lerwick South councillor Cecil Smith suggested that Bressay people be offered free tickets for a trial period of six months to see what effect that had on the isle.
“The school numbers are going down and we have to do something about it,” he said.
However, head of transport Michael Craigie said it would need from two to three years to find out how the community was responding to free travel. A six-month trial would be of little benefit apart from an “instant feel-good factor”.
Mr Wishart moved the recommendation and he was seconded by Mr Robinson.
Mrs Miller suggested that the monthly passenger ticket be reduced to £30 and the month vehicle pass be for unlimited trips, but Mr Wishart said a change would skew costs and he was sticking with the recommendation.
Mr Simpson said if they went down that road the other islands would get “side-stepped”. He moved an amendment that they go back and look at things from an overall perspective.
Seconding, Mr Henderson said if the council agreed with the recommendation he could guarantee that “all hell would break loose through the isles”.
Councillors paid no heed to the warning and voted 12-4 for the recommendation.