Councillors have demanded Scottish government action to address “exorbitantly unequal” ferry fares which allow families in Stornoway to make a return trip to the Scottish mainland for a fifth of the price a Shetland family has to pay.
In its submission to the Scottish government’s draft ferries plan, the SIC highlights that in peak season, the cost of two adults and two children travelling from Lerwick to Aberdeen and back with a car is £702.60. An equivalent family return trip between Stornoway and Ullapool costs just £135.40.
Scottish civil servant Cheryl Murrie was in Lerwick for Friday morning’s development committee to update the SIC on the government’s draft ferries plan and the tendering process for the new north boats contract. Members took the opportunity to bemoan the council’s exclusion from the so-called “competitive dialogue” negotiations with the four remaining bidders.
They were equally as exercised about the need to find a fairer system for setting fares. The Western Isles has benefited greatly from the introduction of RET (road equivalent tariff), but the government recognises that is not suited to Shetland as the 200-mile distance to Aberdeen would see ferry prices go up further still.
ZetTrans chairman Allan Wishart said he still had a “sinking feeling that we’re not really being listened to in Edinburgh”. He issued a reminder that Orkney benefits from six passenger ferries a day to Shetland’s three a week while one of the vessels is in dry dock. “RET is a badge that fits for the west coast,” he said.
Ms Murrie was asked by councillor Jonathan Wills to imagine how people in the central belt would feel if parts of key roads and motorways were frequently shut down in similar fashion. “The subsidies towards the ferries are part of the social contract,” Dr Wills said. “There are subsidies for the London Underground and the M8 too.”
Councillor Betty Fullerton was “quite dismayed” and urged the government to reduce inequalities in the standard and frequency of ferry services for different island groups. She described the discrepancy in fares as “exorbitantly unequal”.
Several members highlighted the lifeline ferry service’s importance not just for passengers, but for industries including seafood which contribute greatly to the wider Scottish economy. Councillor David Sandison said such businesses desperately needed equal access to their marketplace. “There has to be a strong recognition that freight is integral to the entire service,” he added.
The new six-year North Boats contract, which kicks in from July, will be awarded later this spring. The four candidates still in the running are current operator NorthLink, ex-operator P&O Ferries, international services firm Serco and Shetland Line, which operates the government’s freight contract for Orkney and Shetland.
Outgoing councillor Gussie Angus recalled 2006 research by Professor Alan Baird, which was very critical of the design of the current passenger vessels Hjaltland and Hrossey. They were described as “two of the most unsuitable vessels running in northern Europe” and Mr Angus has never heard any rebuttal of that finding, yet it looks inevitable they will continue to be use by the successful bidder until 2018.
Mr Wishart is concerned Shetland won’t get the opportunity to propose adjustments once the contract is awarded, but Ms Murrie assured him officials will be happy to talk through any community concerns.
She said the government was looking at all available evidence, including information contained in the Baird report. The ferries review is at a draft stage and she said communities were free to come back and say if they were unhappy with any aspects of it.
Dr Wills floated the idea of investing in two suitable combined passenger and freight vessels as a “spend to save” measure which would massively reduce the ongoing subsidy required to keep Shetland and Orkney connected to the mainland by sea.