Shetland must remain alert to help protect its lifeline ferry services, despite the recent climb-down by the Scottish government over its calls for NorthLink to make £1m savings this financial year.
Members of the transport partnership ZetTrans heard the climate of austerity could prevail for the next 15 years as Holyrood struggles to maintain adequate levels of revenue and capital funding.
The warning comes after a meeting in Edinburgh between head of SIC’s transport Michael Craigie and the government’s transport minister Stewart Stevenson earlier this month.
That took place before Mr Stevenson agreed not to implement cuts at NorthLink following discussions with conveners of Shetland and Orkney councils, citing better than expected results on the company’s books as the reason for backing down.
But the future remains uncertain for the years ahead, with a report before the ZetTrans meeting on Monday casting a shadow over public spending until 2025 at least.
“The minister made it clear that both revenue and capital funding over the coming years will be very constrained and this will have inevitable impacts on funding for services and infrastructure,” it said.
“It is universally accepted that public sector spending is going to drop sharply in the coming years with commentators suggesting it could be as far as 2025 before public sector resources return to levels seen in 2009.”
A government paper on transport budget pressures warned the Scottish government’s expenditure limit is expected to fall by 3.3 per cent a year, on average, over the next four years.
“The analysis suggests that it may take until 2025/26 for the Scottish government budget to return to 2009/10 levels. This is a total adjustment period of 16 years. In total, the cumulative loss foregone, compared to a scenario where the Scottish government budget remained at its 2009/10 level in real terms, is approximately £26bn.”
Chairwoman of ZetTrans Iris Hawkins said: “We have to take a watchful eye. We have to be very vigilant at all times to do with the transport service for Shetland.”
The report recommends alternative methods of funding be explored. It also calls for resources to be shared across different sectors in a more integrated fashion.
On that note, an unlikely alliance has been formed between ZetTrans and its Strathclyde equivalent, Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT).
Council officials believe they can explore ways of making economies by listening to how SPT has shared services between public authorities, saving money in the process.
• Meanwhile, the role of ZetTrans could be expanded despite rumours nationally concerning the future of transport bodies within Scottish local authorities.
Mr Craigie said he had been given an encouraging message during his meeting with Mr Stevenson to discuss transport links in the isles.
He told officials and councillors partnerships could soon have a more hands-on role in delivering transport policy.
“The minister was talking in terms of partnerships taking in more of a role beyond that of the planning of transport to the delivery of transport instead,” said Mr Craigie.
He added RTPs – or regional transport partnerships, to give them their full title – afforded the government “a far closer relationship with local issues”.
“A regional perspective is important in taking things closer to the local authority and getting responsibility and accountability closer to local level.”