The council has moved to quell anger in Foula over the threat to its successful privatised ferry service from a 23 per cent cut in funding. The island’s community councillor Jim Gear was shocked to learn this week that councillors had agreed a £115,000 cut to the annual contract of over £500,000 without consultation.
All the council had said publicly was that the saving would come from “negotiating a different specification and delivery method” for the service before it goes out to tender shortly.
The cutback is just one of 163 different savings and hikes in council charges already backed by councillors to help hack £18.5 million off the local authority’s spend in 2011/12.
Since November 2006 the Foula ferry has been operated by Atlantic Ferries, a company owned by the Grains brothers from Whiteness. They have run the council ferry New Advance almost without complaint from the 30 folk in Foula after many years of enduring a troubled council-run service.
The 15-year-old Foula-based boat does two sailings a week in winter between Foula and Walls and three in summer, including to Scalloway.
Mr Gear said any move to cut the service would be “absolutely disgraceful” and an unfair act of sabotage on one of Shetland’s most remote communities, particularly when it had only recently been involved in talks about enhancing transport services for the outer isles.
He raised the issue with the SIC councillors who attended Tuesday night’s meeting of the Walls and Sandness Community Council. As a result, councillor Gary Robinson sought answers from council officials the following day at the Full Council, prompting infrastructure executive director Gordon Greenhill to give an assurance that the service to islanders would not be affected.
Mr Greenhill said afterwards the saving was “an efficiency, not a cut” and the council would not change customers’ transport expectations without prior consultation.
Later, head of transport Michael Craigie admitted the Foula folk were entitled to have concerns based on the lack of information coming out of the council about the decision. But he insisted there would be no changes to the frequency or timing of sailings or any threat to the continued stationing of the boat in Foula with its island crew. He said: “It will be exactly the same service as they currently receive.”
For commercial reasons he said he could not go into detail about the proposed savings at this stage. However, having had a private operator running the contract for over four years he said the council had learnt a lot about how it could refine the contract specification to take out waste and inefficiency.
He said: “We see opportunities to change some aspects of the specification in terms of the support aspects of the service rather than the frontline aspects of the service.”
Councillor Robinson said he had been assured there was no indication at this stage that the ferry service was in any way going to be reduced. However he said until the members saw the tender documents they would not know with absolute certainty what was being proposed.
One area he understands savings will be found is from the mystifying council accounting practice of “recharges” under which budgets are set to include often large amounts charged as fees by other council departments to cover the various services they provide to each other.
“We’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on it,” he said. “We’ve got the message loud and clear from the Foula folk that they believe they have a good service and that’s what they want to keep.”
Mr Gear said he believed a lot of council officials’ time had been charged against the Foula ferry service, which had made it seem more expensive than it needed to be.
However, finding a saving of £115,000 from a £500,000 contract without having any effect on islanders would seem ambitious. Other potential areas where reductions might be made could include insurance costs or possibly relaxing the requirement on the operators regarding the back-up ferry they have to provide. Atlantic Ferries bought the catamaran Ali Cat which it has used from time to time.
For full story, see this week’s Shetland Times.