The councils in Orkney and Shetland have joined forces to call on the Scottish government to find and pay for a ship suitable to both islands during NorthLink’s forthcoming drydock period.
During a telephone conference call which appears to have defused the tensions between the island neighbours it was agreed that a stand-in ship with the same capabilities as the Hjaltland, Hrossey and Hamnavoe was required for the whole nine weeks from 23rd January and 26th March.
The council representatives agreed the ship must also be fully funded by the government, unlike the previous suggestion from Edinburgh that Shetland Islands Council should contribute up to £25,000 towards bringing in an inferior ferry Hebridean Isles which would stand in for the Hamnavoe on the Pentland Firth route for three weeks, avoiding the need for the Hrossey or Hjaltland to do so.
A letter has been sent to Scottish transport minister Keith Brown setting out the islands’ case and calling for fresh talks with him. Time is running out because although NorthLink has been working on its drydock plans since last summer there is still no agreement with less than two weeks to go.
Nevertheless Shetland councillors will meet on Thursday afternoon to discuss the Scottish government’s proposal for the SIC to make a financial contribution to chartering the Hebridean Isles.
SIC leader Josie Simpson said today: “We urge the government to find a solution that meets the needs of both Orkney and Shetland as a matter of urgency.”
He said the NorthLink passenger ships were “lifeline services in every sense of the word” for both Orkney and Shetland.
“For Shetland, a reliable connection with Aberdeen is essential for the economic well-being of our fishing and seafood industries and for our wider community. We will be badly affected if the current two-vessel operation is reduced to just a single ferry during the refit period.”
The loss of nightly scheduled sailings causes concerns for fish and shellfish exporters who are under pressure to reach global supply chains on time and meet individual customer deadlines.
Although enhanced freight ship sailings are planned during the drydocking period they have been shown in previous years to be less reliable, particularly in extreme winter weather. This year’s docking dates also mean only one ship in service to carry visitors attending Lerwick Up-Helly-A’. By bringing in an extra ship for at least the first three weeks of the period some of the problems could be avoided.
Orkney Islands Council convener Stephen Hagan repeated the view that the smaller and slower Hebridean Isles was “totally unacceptable” to the people of Orkney.
“From past experience we know the Hebridean Isles is not a suitable vessel to operate a reliable lifeline service on the Pentland Firth in the adverse weather conditions that can be expected at that time of the year.”
Meanwhile Lerwick Community Council was unanimous last night in opposing the possibility that the SIC might agree to pay £25,000 towards hiring the Hebridean Isles.
Community councillor Eddie Knight said it would set a precedent which could be used against the SIC in the future.
But there was some concern that Orkney’s needs were not as great as Shetland’s. Community council chairman Jim Anderson said Shetland was at a disadvantage compared with Orkney when it came to choice. “I think the point is it’s our lifeline service and they have other options – several other options – when it comes to getting to the mainland.”