Scotland’s transport minister has claimed there is little evidence Shetland is suffering as a result of the three-year pilot project which has reduced ferry fares to the Western Isles.
On a short visit to the isles on Tuesday, Stewart Stevenson rejected claims that the Scottish Government was looking after its political interests in the Outer Hebrides by operating the road equivalent tariff (RET) scheme, saying the need for an economic boost to communities where the population is falling was much greater.
No-one has advocated an RET system for Shetland because it would make travel more expensive, but there have been calls from isles MSP Tavish Scott among others to reduce the level of fares on NorthLink to make travel less costly and help tourism.
Mr Stevenson failed to offer any short term assurances on the price of a ferry ticket, but said lessons learned from the trial period would be put into practice throughout the ferry network.
“We’ve seen the figures for the Northern Isles which are basically pretty stable,” he said. “From January to the early summer we’ve seen an increase in visitors coming on the ferries to Shetland, so there isn’t very much evidence that Shetland has been disadvantaged by the trial on the Western Isles.
“What we haven’t seen is a transfer of traffic away from other destinations where RET is not operating.”
Mr Stevenson added that the Western Isles had seen a 19 per cent reduction in its population over the last 20 years, while Shetland’s population had remained relatively steady.
“In making that intervention it was clear we chose an area of economic stress, in particular to see if it creates the economic circumstances in that community to stabilise and develop,” he said.
“But we will learn lessons from that that will be applicable right across the ferry networks that we have supporting our island communities.
“All our remote and rural communities require support and this pilot will feed into a longer term view of the support we need to provide.”
His comments came during a visit to Lerwick Harbour, where an official inauguration ceremony was held to mark the port’s £12 million dredging programme.
The largest capital project in the port’s recent past, it means there is now a minimum of nine metres of water depth north to south through the entire harbour.
The dredging provided a deepened north channel and a widened north entrance and basin at Greenhead Base.
Deepened berths at Shetland Catch and at Shetland Fish Product’s fishmeal and oil factory at Heogan Bressay have brought benefits to the pelagic sector.
The project also assures Lerwick an enhanced role in the offshore industry, giving it the ability to handle larger vessels, onshore decommissioning and marine support for offshore exploration.
For more on this, see this week’s Shetland Times.