Shetland councillors today unanimously rejected the Scottish government’s suggestion that it contribute £25,000 towards chartering a vessel to cover the lifeline Lerwick to Aberdeen ferry service during the upcoming drydocking.
The message from the 15 members present at a specially-convened SIC meeting in Lerwick Town Hall was clear: under no circumstances will they countenance coughing up cash towards the NorthLink service this year or at any time in the future.
Councillors agreed that it was not the local authority’s responsibility to pay for the lifeline service, which Gary Robinson described as the islands’ equivalent of the M8 motorway. The government had suggested the SIC pay around a tenth of the estimated £250,000 cost of chartering a boat for three weeks.
What will happen when the nine-week drydock period starts on 23rd January remains up in the air. As things stand, Shetland will be left with only one of its two passenger ferries and a beefed-up freight service until late March, a spell which includes the busy Up-Helly-A’ period.
The SIC’s transport officials, headed by Michael Craigie, have been instructed to make Shetland’s case to the government. The council’s political leader Josie Simpson said “as strong as possible a case” would be made to get another boat.
Paramount in members’ thoughts was the importance of key industries, in particular seafood and fishing, having a reliable service to export their products to mainland markets. During the meeting Mr Simpson pointed out that some 6,000 boxes of whitefish had been landed this week, the vast majority of which would need to be shipped out of Shetland.
Looking to future years, the SIC is to demand that the government puts measures in place to ensure a daily passenger and freight service is maintained throughout the calendar.
Mr Craigie was already due to visit Edinburgh on Monday to discuss the new North Boats contract, and he will raise the matter then.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Simpson said: “It was a unanimous decision that we’re not in a position to fund the NorthLink service because it’s a government-run organisation and it’s up to them to fund it.”
Newly-elected councillor David Sandison said that if a suitable vessel could not be found at this notice, it was vital a modified timetable – perhaps even a winter shuttle service – was put in place to ensure the daily connection is maintained.
Councillor Gussie Angus pointed out that the government had known about the dry-docking issue for months and had failed to make a contingency plan. To come along with a “you put a few quid in, we’ll put a few quid in” request at this notice was “a peculiar way to run a lifeline service,” he said.
As Shetland Aquaculture’s general manager, Mr Sandison was able to give the industry’s perspective in his first substantive contribution as a councillor. He said most people had “nearly fallen off our chairs” after hearing the government’s “preposterous” proposal.
This part of the year coincides with the peak time for harvesting in the mussel industry, West Side councillor Frank Robertson pointed out. The shellfish has a short shelf life and, once harvested, if they miss the boat for just one night it can cost mussel businesses as much as £10,000, he said.
While Shetland mussels are the premium product on the market now, Mr Robertson said suppliers from elsewhere were ready to pounce if isles producers could not ensure a regular supply.
SIC head of development Neil Grant deputised for Alistair Buchan, the interim chief executive – perhaps wisely – giving the subject a wide berth due to the scope for an Orkney versus Shetland conflict to break out.
In the event, members largely avoided bringing the neighbouring island group into discussions, Mr Robinson saying it was for Shetland to make the case for a daily service between here and Aberdeen and not get involved in what’s going on in the Pentland Firth.
Chairman of the environment and transport committee Allan Wishart said later: “Members were very clear on their position this afternoon. There was absolutely no desire to contribute funding to pay for the provision of this lifeline service, which is ultimately the responsibility of the Scottish government. However, we recognise that solutions must be found as the drydocking period is almost upon us.
“Therefore, the council has provided a very clear mandate for officers to go back to the Scottish government, with input from relevant Shetland transport stakeholders, and seek a satisfactory solution.”
He added: “Despite what’s been said recently, members felt that there can be no absolute guarantee this won’t happen again. So the motion passed at today’s meeting also makes a clear requirement for the government to maintain the full normal daily passenger and freight service, irrespective of any surveying or drydock requirements, throughout the term of this and future contracts.”