The Scottish Government has backed down over its plans to order NorthLink to save fuel by lengthening its journey times without any prior consultation.
The move follows a meeting between transport minister Stewart Stevenson and MSPs for both Orkney and Shetland, although the company will still have to find ways of saving £1 million a year to help balance the books.
A row broke out last week when the SNP administration ordered that the Hjaltland and Hrossey be run on two engines instead of four, adding an hour on to journeys to and from Aberdeen on nights the ferries stopped in at Orkney.
Mr Stevenson also forced the company to look into reducing the number of sailings during the quieter winter months when fewer passengers travel on the ferries.
On Tuesday Shetland MSP Tavish Scott announced he and his Orkney counterpart Liam McArthur had secured a meeting with Mr Stevenson, following concerns from businesses worried they would lose out on getting perishable stock such as whitefish or seafood south if the boat started leaving Lerwick at 4pm instead of 5pm.
After the meeting Mr Scott, who last week accused the government of “considering turning the clock back,” said the transport minister had accepted he had handled the last week “appallingly.”
He added that the door was now open to consultation on how a £1 million annual cost-cutting exercise can be properly implemented.
Mr Scott said: “On the positive side, the minister has accepted that he was wrong to try to impose these changes without any consultation. He has taken a step back and put his proposals on the table, inviting others to offer alternatives.
“But he is still determined to make a cost saving of around £1 million per annum. So he is still going to leave us with very unpalatable choices. There is no certainty that a solution which is even close to acceptable in Orkney and Shetland can be found.”
Mr McArthur said people in the Northern Isles would see it an “injustice” if they were made to suffer higher fares, longer journeys, or possibly even both, while the government showed an unwillingness to look again at the RET project in the Western Isles, which was denied Orkney and Shetland.
“Despite the agreement to consult and look at alternatives the minister is hell-bent on saving money,” Mr McArthur said.
The situation was due to be discussed at a meeting of the Special Shetland External Transport Forum, scheduled for today.
Members were due to consider proposed revisions to NorthLink’s timetables which could run if the company was forced to go ahead with last week’s changes.
However, with the door now open to negotiations, there may be little merit in discussing possible early departures or late arrivals until talks have taken place.
Meanwhile members of the council’s transport partnership ZetTrans were in Orkney on Wednesday to hold talks with NorthLink and government officials.
Iris Hawkins, chairwoman of ZetTrans and the council’s infrastructure committee, said the proposal would have had a big impact on the economy of the area and also on leisure pursuits.
She said: “So I think it’s very important that we go back to the community and find out their take on it across the board.”
One of the first people to comment on last week’s government move was the SNP candidate for Orkney and Shetland during the forthcoming general election.
John Mowat said spending on the NorthLink route had gone up by 34 per cent from £29 million in 2007/08 to a projected £38.9 million in 2010/11.
“The Scottish Government runs on a fixed budget, relying on block grant funding from Westminster which is, in turn, being reduced,” Mr Mowat said. “There is thus a need to reduce spending without damaging services wherever possible.”
He said the issue of winter sailings and timetables was “less urgent”, pointing to NorthLink’s recent acquisition of its new freight vessel Hildasay, which boasted a much larger freight capacity than the old Hascosay.