Shetland Islands Council is to firmly oppose all the options put forward by the government to save money by cutting NorthLink’s ferry service.
Councillors today roundly condemned all eight scenarios put out for consultation, which include slowing the passenger ships down to half-speed or taking one of out of service during winter months.
Councillor Allan Wishart likened the impact of reducing engine use on Shetland’s lifeline service to that of closing one the lanes of the motorway between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
While rejecting all the proposals out of hand the council hopes it might appeal to the SNP government to save money in the long term by fixing the problems councillors believe were created for Shetland by the first Labour/Lib Dem administration by replacing the unsuitable Hrossey and Hjaltland, considered to be among the most inefficient ferries in Europe due to their small size, single freight decks and high fuel consumption.
The infrastructure committee called for the shipping link to be radically overhauled for everyone’s benefit. Its views are to be communicated initially in a formal response to consultation this week and followed up during face-to-face talks led by convener Sandy Cluness, including a meeting with Scottish finance secretary John Swinney when he visits later this month.
Elected members had different views as to the best approach to be taken. While the convener and Gary Robinson favoured an appeal for the options to be dropped and the Labour/Lib Dem wrongs to be put right, councillor Gussie Angus preferred an “extremely robust” response. “I think we should be down in Edinburgh tearing up their carpets,” he said during a speech which Caroline Miller declared to be one of the best she had heard in the chamber.
She called for the local authority to take legal advice with a view to pursuing Rick Nickerson’s idea of a judicial review if government ministers try to impose an unacceptable cut to the shipping link.
The proposal to reduce the ships from four to two engines on sailings which call at Orkney could save up to £419,000 a year, according to NorthLink. The idea was first revealed in March, although it was later postponed while other ways to find savings of £1 million were looked at.
Other options on the table include:
- Tying up one of the passenger ships in Leith in the winter, saving nearly £1.4 million a year, or possibly putting on extra daytime sailings of the ship left in service, reducing the savings to around £640,000;
- Extending voyages both ways between Lerwick and Aberdeen by two hours with earlier sailing times, saving £233,000;
- Slowing the freight ship coming north to Lerwick to arrive at noon each day, saving £84,000 a year;
- Stopping some calls of the passenger ships to Orkney, saving £230,000.
Mr Angus said tying up one of the passenger boats in winter would be turning the clock back to Victorian times for the north boats. He condemned the failure of governments and “ill-informed civil servants” to heed the study findings of transport expert Alf Baird who in 2006 called for the Hjaltland and Hrossey and the two cargo ships to be replaced by two much bigger ships, doubling capacity and saving £10 million a year, which today would be a substantially higher figure.
Dr Baird’s solution would require a shift away from the cramped confines of Aberdeen to a bigger destination harbour such as Rosyth or Peterhead. His study was funded by the EU for the Northern Maritime Corridor project.
Mr Angus said Aberdeen’s harbour problems were the main reason Shetland had ended up with small, unsuitable ships. The government had then drawan up a schedule which required the ships to have huge power to provide the speed needed to call at Orkney, using four tonnes of fuel an hour, he had been told, whereas one tonne an hour was enough on the Orkney to Shetland leg.
Betty Fullerton said it was “absolutely despicable” that the Baird report had never been addressed in Edinburgh.
Council head of transport Michael Craigie said all the options for savings had the potential for significant negative impact on Shetland and its economy. Despite that, the government had not complied with the rules it applies to local authorities requiring them to go through a rigorous Stag process to assess the impact of all transport proposals.
Mr Robinson said the options were “wholly unacceptable” but there was not widespread support for his call for NorthLink to be swallowed up by its wholly government-owned sister CalMac, saving money by having just one set of managers. He said it was time to stop the pretence that NorthLink was anything other than “CalMac Lite”.
Some of his other savings ideas did enjoy some support, including cutting out some calls to Orkney – which Shetland had never asked for – and stopping serving meals on board. Laura Baisley said the up-market restaurant on the Hrossey and Hjaltland should be turned into more cabins.
Mrs Miller warned that restrictions on sailing times would drive passengers onto the planes instead, making NorthLink even less profitable. It already requires government subsidy of over £30 million a year.