The first shots have rung out in Shetland’s next bitter spending cuts war – a battle to stop the inter-island ferries service being slashed, damaging the viability of isles communities.
During the initial skirmish in the council chamber yesterday the opposing sides on the environment and transport committee did at least agree it was essential that officials come up with possible new models for operating the ferries within six months.
Both camps want an early solution rather than having to wait the 18 months that had been suggested. But their desires for the outcome of the review are worlds apart.
At this stage the only new option officials have confirmed will e-merge for debate is the farming out of the service to private operators, as has already been done successfully and at reduced cost with the Foula ferry, run by local company Atlantic Ferries.
With several years of painful cuts yet to come and a ferries’ fuel bill spiralling out of control again this year (see separate story), some Mainland members are marshalling their arguments for an unprecedented assault on the much-admired service which has expanded greatly since the 1970s. Last year it cost £10.9 million in running costs and brought in about £1.6 million in fares. Already there is talk of cutting operating hours and reducing the frequency of sailings.
In the opposing camp are the three North Isles members who are increasingly resentful about what they see as a Mainland bias in the local authority. Already scarred from the axe blows of their colleagues who despatched the primary schools in Uyeasound and Burravoe, they now wait for some of the same councillors to set about the ferries and, in the words of Yell-based councillor Robert Henderson, “emptying the isles”.
Mr Henderson told the committee on Wednesday he was dismayed to hear some of the views around the council table and he repeated his belief that putting up fares any higher or reducing the service will force young folk out. Then the council will have to house them in the central belt. “Basically it would destroy the isles,” he said.
That is already happening in Whalsay, according to its resident councillor Josie Simpson who voiced isles members’ resentment towards those who slapped a 15 per cent fares rise on ferry users this year. He was backed by Mr Henderson who said that with bus fares only rising five per cent the extra 10 per cent levied on ferry users was “a tax on anybody staying in an island”.
With no sign of tunnels or bridges coming to the rescue, the lifestyles of many isles folk will be at the mercy of the majority view among the 22 elected members when they debate ferry cutbacks over the coming months.
It was councillor Rick Nickerson who succeeded in getting a commitment out of infrastructure executive director Gordon Greenhill to table “politically acceptable” models for a new-look ferry service within six months. Mr Nickerson wanted early progress because even if a new model is agreed it would take at least a further year for it to be put into action.
He told the committee the only way the council was going to fix its spending problems with the ferries was not by sourcing cheaper fuel but by agreeing a level of service it could afford, possibly by cutting runs and operating hours. “None of us is going to like it,” Mr Nickerson said, “the same as the way none of us like closing schools.”
Others looking for savings include committed cost-cutter Allison Flea Duncan who questions ferry crew numbers; Gary Robinson who said the most fundamental problem was that “the ends don’t meet anymore” yet members are not hearing any solutions, and Betty Fullerton who believes the current ferry service simply cannot be sustained. She said: “Something’s got to give.”
On top of the escalating running costs they know that some of the 15 ferry terminals are being used beyond their lifespan and require replacement or major upgrading while some of the fleet of 13 ferries will also have to be renewed at huge expense.
While some councillors are expecting cuts Mr Simpson is still seeking the promised service improvement for Whalsay to cope with traffic bottlenecks. He said Whalsay had a big, big problem now and officials were simply delaying progress.
Mr Simpson dismissed as “utter bunkum” a proposal to save £50,000 a year in fuel by switching the island’s ferries, restricting the bigger boat Linga to daytime operations only. He said it would only make the congestion worse. Clearly annoyed to see the proposal still in the plans, albeit delayed to next year, he said in despair: “I don’t know where we’re going with all this!”
The thinking behind the fares hike that councillors pushed through was that it would bring in an extra £146,000 this year but it is already becoming evident that fewer people are taking their cars on the ferries, which means income from fares is dwindling while costs are rising.
Councillor Caroline Miller, whose North Lerwick ward includes Bressay, where she lives, said councillors had sat in the town hall and told colleagues and officials that that was what would happen. The previous night she had counted 12 Bressay cars parked up near the ferry terminal rather than taken across on the ferry.
Although a ferry user, she suggested to the committee some ideas for cutting services, including capping the speed ferries travel at and operating at slack times, such as afternoons and evenings, only if there are bookings.
Mrs Miller said she was “absolutely scunnered” not just with ferries but the entire transport system in Shetland and how little had been achieved to improve it in the four years she has been a councillor.
She wants the residents of every rural area to be able to travel from home to catch the first flight out of Shetland and to be able to get shift-work. She warned if there were more expensive fares then only old folk would be left in the islands because young folk could no longer afford it.
Mr Henderson saw the chance to stick the knife in his fellow ferry user in revenge for her support for closing the isles’ primary schools. He said he was glad she wanted more folk living in the isles but her votes on the schools had already ruined that scenario.