The SNP’s general election candidate has rejected an accusation from isles MP Alistair Carmichael that he is seeking to play Orkney and Shetland off against one another by recommending alterations to NorthLink’s timetable so that its ferries arrive in Lerwick later in the morning.
Earlier this month, Scottish transport minister Stewart Stevenson controversially ordered the ferry operator to reduce power on the Hjaltland and Hrossey from four to two engines to save money on fuel costs, which means journeys via Orkney will take up to one-and-a-half hours longer.
Under Northlink’s proposed new timetable vessels calling at Orkney would leave Aberdeen at 3.30pm instead of the current 5pm departure, so that they could still arrive in Lerwick at 7.30am. Going south, the boat via Orkney would leave Lerwick at 5pm instead of 5.30pm, getting in at 7.30am instead of 7am at present. The direct route between Aberdeen and Lerwick will remain unaffected.
SNP candidate John Mowat, who lives in Orkney, said having ferries arriving in Kirkwall after 11pm would present difficulties for providers of holiday accommodation and suggested that one solution might be having the ferries run more slowly up to Shetland, arriving an hour later than at present.
Mr Carmichael said such a proposal to meet the needs of one community by “sacrificing the needs of another” was “no solution at all”. But Mr Mowat said that was a “misinterpretation” of what he had actually said, which was that a full consultation should look at “whether the ferry arriving [in Lerwick] at 8am would be acceptable” along with a raft of other measures to save money.
“John Mowat told a hustings in Kirkwall Grammar School that it was unacceptable for boats to be arriving in Kirkwall after 11pm because of the difficulties this would cause for local holiday accommodation providers,” said Mr Carmichael. “He was right about that. But he went on to say that the boats should then run more slowly to arrive in Shetland at 8.30am or 9am. This is apparently a solution that he has been urging the SNP transport minister to pursue.
“I do not think that many people in Shetland will be keen on Mr Mowat’s solution. The Aberdeen service is Shetland’s lifeline. Ironically his solution is one which would be bad for Shetland but which would not achieve much by way of savings for his SNP bosses in Edinburgh. The boats already run more slowly on the second leg of that journey.
“The present timetable is a balance which involves compromise for both communities. If there are to be changes then they should maintain that balance.”
Mr Carmichael criticised what he sees as an SNP trait of “playing one community off against the other”, raising their introduction of a pilot programme for Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) ferry fares in the Western Isles while “ignoring” the Inner Hebrides and the Northern Isles.
He added: “Their approach is wrong-headed and unfair. Liberal Democrats believe that lifeline services for island communities should be designed to meet the needs of the communities being served. The SNP seem to think that community needs should take second place to the whims of Stewart Stevenson.”
Mr Mowat – who criticised the manner in which Mr Stevenson announced the changes, without prior consultation – said he believed the Liberal Democrats and other parties should be getting together with the SIC and Orkney Islands Council (OIC) and approaching the consultation “in a positive manner”.
“It’s more an issue for Shetland than Orkney, but what you don’t want to do is play the one against the other,” said Mr Mowat, adding that raising RET and the Western Isles in relation to the Northlink cutbacks was “general political posturing” and that the Liberal Democrats needed to realise that “the money supply is going to be limited and the cost of everything has to be looked at”.
“He [Mr Stevenson] could have done it in a more diplomatic manner. I hope that NorthLink would be able to come up with suggestions other than savings [but] anything that happens should do so with the agreement of the communities. The savings don’t necessarily have to come from fuel alone – they made an £800,000 profit last year; maybe we could take part of the savings out of that. If they have a good season, maybe more passengers on the route, that kind of thing might help to cover the extra costs.”
Meanwhile, the SIC and OIC are still awaiting a response from Mr Stevenson as to whether the government will allow time for a full consultation, detailed evaluation of their proposals and the opportunity to develop other options.
As well as the plan to make economies on fuel, there is a potentially more damaging but as-yet unclear proposal for one of the two passenger ships to be removed from service during the winter period. Clarification is being sought on that matter, including the length of period affected and how busy peak times around Christmas and New Year are to be served by just three round trips a week.
Officials from the two councils had a videoconference meeting with the government and NorthLink last Thursday to press their case. Their intention is to set up a working group made up of the two transport partnerships, NorthLink and the government to “assess a range of options for reducing funding pressures” and to look at not just short-term budget pressures, but also long-term ferry provision.
Chairwoman of Shetland’s transport partnership ZetTrans Iris Hawkins said: “I’m glad to see that the government is beginning to recognise the importance of proper engagement with SIC and OIC over this important matter. The significance of the ferry services to Shetland and Orkney cannot be overstated and therefore we must ensure that all issues are clearly understood and addressed before final decisions are taken.”