Letter from Edinburgh

This week parliament debated the economy. Or rather what any government can do about global recession, the state of Greece and the lasting impact banking is having on us all. It seems a good time not to over promise as a government. Get done the things you have respon­sibility for and do them well. Like cutting fuel prices!

Take another somewhat pressing example. We depend for pretty well everything on the north boats. So it’s not much to ask that whatever the government is it should ensure that any change to who runs that service is carried out with the minimum of fuss. Yes, government needs to save money, so it’s right to tender the service to shipping companies that want to operate between Lerwick and Aberdeen. But to do that a clear and specific plan must detail the route, the frequency and the fare structure. That’s essential because in Shetland’s case this is a monopoly. It can be argued that Loganair provides competition but it’s a weak case. The air and sea service are complementary rather than in direct competition and for freight there isn’t even an argument. So I am at a complete loss to understand why Scottish ministers are not listening to sane voices asking for clarity on their intentions. Even worse, islanders and businesses have no certainty, and in some cases cannot even book tickets in 2012. The Shetland tourist industry made its concerns crystal clear in recent days and having met salmon farming companies this week, they have similar worries.

So what’s holding things back? The answer is the Scottish govern­ment’s spending review. No minister is allowed to say anything on money till next week’s announcement on who gets what. Government will have taken the decision on fares for 2012 and the budget for our ferry services. But irrespective of how badly the Northern Isles needs this information, nothing will happen until next week at the earliest. When Liam McArthur and I met the ministers responsible before the summer break, we said that time was pressing. They agreed but we got the usual waffle about process. I know it was waffle. I was guilty of it myself when I was a minister! So the real problem now will be the very tight timescale for delivering the new contract. In particular, how much time will we get, will Shetland get, to judge and comment on what the government propose for our service. If there’s a broadly similar Shetland-Aberdeen operation that will be fine. But if at the last minute the government drops in something that reduces our service then there will be an uproar. I hope that sense prevails.

On fares, the important aspect of the service for all of us, look out for a divide and rule approach. If the SNP continues with cutting the cost of the Ullapool to Stornoway service while hiking our fares that would be wrong, unfair and discriminatory. We shall see.

Tavish Scott MSP


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