The first skirmishes of next year’s Scottish parliamentary election took place this week. The subject: ferries. The combatants: the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. For extending its pointless pilot scheme into the operation of road equivalent tariffs (RET) to the Outer Hebrides for a year, at the same time as seeking £1 million of savings from NorthLink, the Nationalist government found itself accused of trying to protect its MP for the area, who has a slim majority. This is traditional electoral stuff and we should not get too excited about it, as some did.
Several points are worth making, however. The Western Isles is in a much more precarious economic and social position than Shetland and Orkney, so there is a clear rationale for assisting those islands first. However, the SNP would have been better advised to have introduce a proper scheme rather than a pilot. To claim, as transport minister Stewart Stevenson does, that more time is needed is preposterous, particularly when no such prolonged study is being made of the impacts of cuts to the Northern Isles service.
Shetland’s MSP has a low boiling point, and his call for the head of Mr Stevenson should be illuminated by this unpleasant fact: an RET scheme for Shetland would be much more expensive than the current fares structure. What exactly is a suitable solution for Shetland other than greater subsidies?
A more constructive suggestion was made by the SIC’s infrastructure committee this week, which has rejected the options for cost savings put forward by the government. The NorthLink ferries are horrendously inefficient, burning up large quantities of fuel, particularly on the Aberdeen-Orkney and Shetland-Orkney legs. Replacement of the ships should be a sin qua non for the next tender period. With its Pentland Firth crossings, Orkney is well connected to the mainland. There should also be fewer Shetland-Orkney and Orkney-Shetland sailings per week.