Shetland will not have to put up with a second-class shipping link during future drydocking seasons, the Scottish transport minister Keith Brown pledged on his first visit today.
Measures are being written into the next Northern Isles ferries’ contract, which starts in July, to ensure no repeat of the nine consecutive weeks of ship drydocking which NorthLink has planned from 23rd January to 26th March, leaving Shetland without a nightly passenger ship sailing.
Meanwhile, efforts are still being made to plug a three-week slot in the drydocking period in February during which the local seafood and freight industries say being down to a passenger ship sailing every second night is not acceptable.
Mr Brown said the government was prepared to put up “the lion’s share” of the estimated £250,000 cost of chartering the CalMac ferry Hebridean Isles for three weeks to go on the Pentland Firth. That would allow the NorthLink passenger ship Hamnavoe to switch routes to ensure nightly sailings between Shetland and Aberdeen.
Contributions are being sought from NorthLink and Shetland Islands Council while Orkney Island Council’s contribution would be sanctioning the temporary transfer of the Hamnavoe to the Shetland route. Industry has not been asked to contribute.
Mr Brown stressed that agreement on all sides is needed. Council environment and transport chairman Allan Wishart, who also heads up the local transport agency ZetTrans, said the issue might be debated next Thursday if a special meeting of the Full Council is called.
It remains to be seen whether Orkney will entertain such a move, given the apparent dislike in the isles of the smaller Hebridean Isles on the Pentland crossing.
Mr Brown’s assurance that there will be no repeat of this year’s prolonged drydocking may help address Mr Wishart’s concern about the council setting a precedent if it gave money this time to help solve the government and NorthLink’s problem.
The minister said: “Hopefully we’ve given assurances to the council and other stakeholders today that our intention through the next tender process is that this will not happen again. That should give them – the council – some more comfort on that issue, that they won’t be asked to put their hands in their pocket all the time.”
Mr Wishart said that danger needed to be balanced against the need to ensure the important seafood industry was supported and avoided being damaged by transport problems.
The housing and transport minister arrived today off the NorthLink ferry Hjaltland on a familiarisation trip to Shetland and was due to reboard her tonight for the return passage. He said the trip north had been “great” with the boat busier than he had expected.
During his visit he met representatives of many Shetland industries and discussed the Northern Isles New Energy Solutions project which Scottish and Southern Energy is planning to strengthen the Shetland electricity grid.
His trip followed an invitation last year from council leader Josie Simpson. Mr Brown said there had been a lot of letters between his office and Shetland on various issues arising at the same time so the main purpose of his trip was to do business face-to-face.
The trips on NorthLink’s finest will have given the minister first-hand experience of the Northern Isles shipping service which the government pays around £38 million a year in subsidy for.
During today’s session with the local media Mr Brown was challenged about the perception that the SNP government discriminates against Shetland in favour of the Western Isles and west of Scotland islands – a view regularly expressed by Lib Dem MSP Tavish Scott.
The road-equivalent tariff (RET) scheme trialled on the west coast of Scotland has not been extended to Shetland and will not be considered during the lifetime of this Scottish Parliament.
“For many but not all of the services it would mean an increase in fares and that’s not something we want to do,” he said.
Devising a suitable scheme was not a straightforward issue for Shetland in particular, he said, but it would be looked at as part of the next tendering process in six years’ time.
He said the £38 million subsidy for Northern Isles shipping links was the highest ever paid for the service and if the government was trying to persecute the Northern Isles it would not be putting in that kind of money. He said it was higher than any subsidy that Mr Scott had brought in when he was transport minister. “If you are a passenger travelling on the services to the Northern Isles what you will pay will contribute around 40 per cent of the cost of providing that service. In the Western Isles it is 50 per cent – half the cost of it is met by fares. So I don’t see how he can say it is at all discriminatory.”
He asked why the government would wish to discriminate against Shetland. “Shetland is doing very well and has got big plans to improve further. The council and the community want to grow in terms of population and economically. Exports are doing extremely well. Why would it be in the Scottish government’s interests not to assist that in every way we could? I don’t think it makes sense for Tavish to say that.”
On the issue of barring businesses and other Shetland organisations from taking advantage of the air discount scheme, Mr Brown said he was looking at trying to re-include charities and non-commercial arms of public bodies like the council, although he could not give any indication as to whether that would be approved by the European Commission, which sets the rules.