Proposed changes to the NorthLink Ferries timetable, which would have meant some earlier departures and longer journeys, have been postponed until after the summer at least.
Transport minister Stewart Stevenson announced today that the Scottish government and NorthLink would now work together to find alternative ways to make £1 million of savings this year.
The original proposals, announced at the beginning of March without consulation with service users and due to take effect next month, would have seen ferries on the Lerwick-Kirkwall-Aberdeen route and visa versa running on two engines instead of four.
That would have involved boats leaving Lerwick at 5pm instead of 5.30pm, and arriving at Aberdeen half an hour later at 7.30am. Going north the ferries would have left Aberdeen at 3.30pm instead of the current 5pm.
The government also asked NorthLink to look at reducing the number of sailings during the winter months when fewer passengers used the ferries, even though the periods would be limited due to busy seasonal holidays and spring refits.
The proposals sparked a row over the lack of consultation, with the Shetland transport agency ZetTrans, whitefish and salmon producers’ groups and isles politicians among those criticising the government.
Mr Stevenson said the government had been “responding positively” to the very real challenges on public spending which it faced. They were identifying areas where efficiencies could be made while still providing the lifeline services the Northern Isles expected.
Today, however, Mr Stevenson said that after consultation with stakeholders, islands councils and local communities, ministers had decided that any change would be postponed until autumn while discussions continued.
NorthLink chief executive Bill Davidson was unwilling to comment on possible alternative ways of making savings, but he said meetings would be held with represtatives of both Shetland and Orkney Islands Councils.
“We will be looking at a wide variety of ideas,” Mr Davidson said. “There is quite a lot to explore.”
The news was immediately welcomed by Shetland MSP Tavish Scott and his Orkney counterpart Liam McArthur. However, they said ministers, due to arrive in Orkney on Tuesday for the Highlands and Islands Convention, would find the hostility against the targeted cost-cutting plans would be just as strong in the autumn as it was now.
Mr Scott said: “Let’s be clear – this is not a U-turn. It’s just a postponement of this SNP cut, a cut which has been targeted at Orkney and Shetland while the Western Isles continues to enjoy their reduced ferry fares introduced under the disguise of a Road Equivalent Tariff pilot.
“Given the hostility these plans have rightly attracted, it’s no wonder that ministers want to postpone them until after the General Election. But the hostility the plans will meet then will be just as strong as that they are meeting now. If ministers think that this concession will win them an easy ride in Orkney on Tuesday, then they are in for a big disappointment.”
Mr McArthur added that it would have been “ludicrous” to introduce the changes this summer. Minister should be under no illusion that damaging reductions to the lifeline ferry services would continue to be resisted by both communities.