I confess that I have always been sceptical about the decision to roll out a “pilot scheme” for Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) in the Western Isles.
In the period after they took power in 2007 and when the SNP was throwing money around like a man with no arms it seemed like a pretty obvious piece of what the Americans would call pork barrel politics.
It was always difficult to see what a pilot in the Western Isles would tell us about the impact and workability of RET in Orkney, Shetland or even the Inner Hebrides or the islands in the Firth of Clyde. If the pilot scheme was to be a statement of intent that would see other island communities get the same level of support once the pilot had been evaluated then this one would be of limited value.
In more recent times when the SNP started talking about making reductions in the level of services in the NorthLink service from Aberdeen to Shetland via Orkney the likelihood of seeing RET rolled out looked even more remote.
I did wonder at that stage how the SNP government would deal with the local fallout in the Western Isles when the “pilot” finished just before the next Scottish parliamenty election. Once you have given a community a cash injection like that it is difficult to take it away again.
The answer came this week with the announcement that the “pilot” is to be extended by another 12 months leaving the difficult decision and the bad news until after polling day. The sheer opportunism of this takes your breath away. What more is there that can be learned about RET (even exclusively in the Western Isles, never mind elsewhere) that has not already been seen? What evaluation has been made of the economic impact of the policy on the islands? Has it been good value for money? Have the cost benefits been passed on to local consumers?
This week’s announcement was a clear political fix. Can you imagine the uproar that would have ensued if Tavish Scott, when he introduced the Air Discount Scheme as then transport minister, had said that this would apply only in Shetland? The clamour would have been deafening and rightly so.
I do not actually think it would have been of any particular political benefit to him here in Shetland and this is where I think that the SNP transport minister may have miscalculated. I suspect that the people of the Western Isles will see this as the unsustainable fix that it is and I suspect they will be less than impressed at being treated in this way.
Everyone knows that substantial cuts in public spending are now inevitable if the future of public services is to be sustainable at all. Politicians are expected to face up to the economic realities facing the country and to take tough decisions. If that is the test then I am afraid that Stewart Stevenson, Alex Salmond and their colleagues failed it this week.
Alistair Carmichael MP