The threat of cuts to NorthLink’s ferry services has been lifted for the current financial year at least after the company performed above expectations, according to the Scottish government.
Transport minister Stewart Stevenson had been seeking savings of £1 million from the service and a range of eight options, including fewer sailings and longer running times, had been proposed. All were rejected last week by the SIC’s infrastructure committee.
However, at a meeting today between the minister and SIC convener Sandy Cluness and his Orkney counterpart Stephen Hagan it emerged that a strong financial performance by the firm had rendered the proposed savings unnecessary.
The government will be seeking savings in 2011-12, but the conveners said they were optimistic that there would be no need for cutbacks in the service then either.
In a statement, Mr Stevenson said: “This government is committed to supporting lifeline ferry services in all our remote and island communities, and I was pleased to have a useful and constructive meeting with Orkney and Shetland Island councils.
“NorthLink has exceeded its financial expectations this year and we are therefore not looking to make any changes this financial year.
“We are looking for further improvements in the performance of the contract which will allow us to maintain the efficient ferry services which the public currently enjoy as well as respond to the challenges on public spending which are facing us.
“We’ve been providing substantial funding to NorthLink Ferries Ltd in line with our commitment to support and promote economic growth in all our remote and island communities and will have further discussions with both councils as part of the ferries review before any decisions are taken.”
Mr Cluness and Mr Hagan said they were delighted with the progress made, adding that they and the minister would have further discussions through the ferries review and during the preparation of the next North Isles contract.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said: “I’m delighted the SNP have seen sense and u-turned. People in Shetland rely on these lifeline links and it was shameful for the SNP to play politics with them.”
Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said: “Welcome though this u-turn is, it begs serious questions about the competence of the transport minister.
“In the last six months, Mr Stevenson has tried to slow down our Aberdeen ferry service, removed the lifeline entirely by diverting the Hamnavoe to Bergen and spent weeks demanding a million pound budget cut he now claims is unnecessary. Each time, consultation with the councils and communities affected was either an afterthought or a smokescreen.
“Such an utter shambles undermines public confidence in this government’s ability to manage our lifeline ferry services. It is time Mr Salmond took note and took action.”