Concerned residents plead their case over cuts to ferry services

Worried Unst residents gathered in Baltasound Hall on Wednesday night to plead with Shet­land Islands Council not to make excessive cuts to the island’s vital ferry links.

There was barely an empty seat to be had as around 100 people, a sizeable chunk of the island’s population, gathered for one of a series of consultations held this week.

Unst Community Council chairman Laur­­ence Robertson described it as “one of the most important meetings we’ll ever attend”.

People in Unst, perhaps more so than other remote communities, feel they have already absorbed a savage hit from council cutbacks. The doors to one of the island’s two primary schools, at Uyeasound, shut a year ago. Its population has slid markedly following the RAF’s departure from Saxa Vord.

After sanctioning a £1 million savings package with “little or no effect” on ferry services, councillors next month sit down to discuss a further £2.8 million of cuts. The council staged public consultations in Fair Isle, Whalsay and Yell this week, as well as Unst, to gather feedback before final proposals are drawn up.

Those present in Baltasound on Wednesday implored councillors not to take action which might jeopardise a booming summer tourist trade, impede commuting to Sullom Voe or drive lucrative aquaculture businesses away from the North Isles.

The council contingent made the two-hour journey north only too aware that islanders were likely to object to the message they had to deliver.

Following a previous round of ferry con­sultations in June, newly-appointed head of finance James Gray raked over the local authority’s books and discovered its financial woes were much greater than previously thought.

Councillors’ new spending strategy resulted in the savings required from ferries mush­rooming from £1.7 million to around £3 mil­lion in order to balance the budget. Of the £13 million spent on ferries, roughly half comes from Edinburgh and only a tenth or so from fare income.

The 110-minute exchange was not as heated as some school closure consultations in recent years. But Unst folk articulated a well-rehearsed case: cut our ferries too deeply, they say, and people will begin deserting the islands in their droves.

Residents were opposed to either the Yell Sound or Bluemull Sound routes being stripped back to a single ferry.

“A total non-starter”, according to one woman. “Completely unworkable”, said another.

Less drastic options include reducing the Geira’s operating hours on Bluemull Sound, though that would only save £50,000 compared to over half a million pounds from cutting back to a single vessel.

On Yell Sound, a more palatable alternative would see the second ferry running only during peak hours on weekday mornings. But that would leave a solitary ferry when people are travelling home at teatime. “How’s that going to work without creating a bottleneck?” one woman asked.

Mr Crossland admitted the ferry service enjoyed by North Isles folk following the cuts simply “won’t be as good”. He said: “You cannot do this and make savings without impacting on the way people travel. That’s the blunt and honest answer.”

There did appear to be a recognition that some aspects of the service will have to change. The preference seemed to be that, if sailings must go, those very late at night should be targeted. Most also seemed content for the council to cease manning ferries overnight.

Most popular of all was the idea of introducing a “discriminatory” fare structure, a scenario whereby island residents benefit from cheap ferry travel and the SIC generates much more income from those – especially tourists – visiting places like Unst.

The audience outlined how tour­ism has been the island’s big success story of late. Saxa Vord’s converted holiday accommodation is now filling up from April to October, whereas previously the visitor season only lasted around four months.

One tour guide said holiday­makers visiting Unst were frequently “astounded” to learn there was no ferry charge. “They’re amazed, it’s ridiculous,” she said.

A passenger taking a car across both Yell Sound and Bluemull Sound pays a total return fare of £10, and she doubted tourists would blanch if that figure was trebled.

With smarter ticket machines to be introduced, Mr Crossland said the council was looking at all sorts of options for fare pricing. That could mean discounted rates and season tickets for island residents.

Officials were reminded that any changes to ferries must take account of how people earn a living – whether ensuring residents can still commute to Sullom Voe, or laying on adequate ferries to cope with the large volume of seafood exported to Lerwick and beyond.

With oil and gas industry jobs likely to be “ten-a-penny” in the next five years, resident Leonard Spence pointed out that such emp­loy­ers needed reliable staff. He suggested job applications contain­ing an Unst postcode would be unattractive amid uncertainty over the future of ferries.

Mr Spence said it was imperative that a post-cuts ferry timetable allowed Sullom Voe staff to get in and out if they worked irregular shift patterns. He also urged the council to ensure Unst residents can get home past 10pm so they can continue to access sport and other leisure activities.

The council is attempting to assess the social and economic effects of its proposals by contacting isles’ businesses. Several people pointed out that firms have not received questionnaires allowing them to provide feedback.

Mr Crossland offered an assur­ance that if the necessary data was not available, he would not present a “half-hearted job” to councillors and next month’s report would have to be delayed.

Retired physics teacher Martin Gill won plenty of murmurs of approval for suggesting the council was far too Lerwick-centric. He said its investment in Mareel, many of whose evening events are logistically out of bounds for isles folk, indicated where priorities lay. “What are you doing to reassure people you are being even-handed, and people in the North Isles are not taking more than their fair share [of cuts]?” he asked.

SIC environment and transport committee chairman Allan Wishart was eager to impress that it was not a case of “Lerwick versus rural areas”.

Mr Wishart said the local auth­ority could “only reduce costs where it’s spending the most money”. In an effort to dispel the notion that the SIC does not look after remote areas, he has asked officials to dig out figures demonstrating how much it spends per head of population in each area of Shetland.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Wishart said he felt it had been a constructive session. He was encouraged that there appeared to be a consensus devel­oping in favour of different fare levels for island residents and tourists, and an acceptance that some less busy sailings could be struck off the timetable.

“Whether that is enough at this stage or not, I don’t know,” he said. “It indicates a realisation that there will be change, but it’s trying to get that change with the least impact possible.”


Add Your Comment
  • john McPhail

    • November 16th, 2012 16:27

    It is a mistake to lok at per head costtings when comparing areas with higher density populations against those rural low density places. Such an approach is simplistic in the extreme. In fact it fails to recognise that there will be inevitable costsavings in providing services to highly populated area on a per head basis. It doesn’t make the need for a road, or bin collection any less necessary in those areas which will suffer in such simplistic appraches. The fact the ccouncillors feel this is an measure to determine “fairness” only further compounds their anti-rural bias.

    Also concerned re the idea that tourists can be expected to be a cashcow to subsidise ferries. Confronted with the sort of fairs hinted at, I would simply avoid Unst. I certainly wouldn’t visit it for the day, but then again I would then not base myself there neither if such a fair was required everytime I wanted to visit somewhere else while on holiday.

    The fact remains, the Lerwick crowd are not interested in rural life and through their spending and demostrating their priorities for things like Mareel they quite simply cannot say they treat the entire Shetland population with equal importance.

  • Hazel Spence

    • November 16th, 2012 17:55

    This meeting left residents dismayed at exactly what has been done since the last consultation nearly five months ago. Most questions asked were met with a reply of it is either being looked into, or studied at the moment. What was the point of the consultation i as? The general public seem to be doing the work for these people who are getting well paid to produce the bits of paper which have taken them 5 months to produce totally unworkable options for the northen isles which cannot sustain the business and industries which require the existing level of service. The savings already made of nearly £1Million , without impacting the people and service directly are encouraging but raise the questions of how mis-managed the system was before?, and who is accountable for that?

    The article above states about the ‘murmours of approval’ which i disagree with. This meeting was not about the council’s spending in other areas, or a island vs Lerwick debate. It was purely to try to stress how important the ferry service is to the people of Shetland and how we can sustain the best level of service we can in the current financial climate. Yes we as island residents do get disheartened at the spending on new council premises, leisure venues and activities and super schools in the central belt when we are fighting for the basic services and our community way of life including our schools, which we feel we are being robbed of when all these ‘consultants’ and head of departments do not seem accountable for mis-management of both employees and services.

    Neil Grant head of economic development for example was not aware that local businesses had not received the questionaire that his department should have sent out before this consultation meetings. Then he seemed not to have considered the requirements of the agricultural sector for ferries etc. Money for nothing.

  • colin webster

    • November 16th, 2012 21:36

    Does S.I.C. want every island other than Mainland and its attachments to become depopulated and subject to” independence” claims by Stuart Hill clones? Surely if tourism is being pushed, there should be more public transport available in Shetland, especially at weekends. The Fair Isle idea of higher ferry fares for tourists makes sense. Even if fares were doubled they would still be very affordable. The real barrier to tourism is the ridiculous Flybe fares between Aberdeen and Sumburgh. You can fly to Rome or Athens from Aberdeen for less.

  • Michael Bilton

    • November 17th, 2012 1:49

    I lived in the South of England and for 13 out of the last 15 years, I have brought my two children to Shetland for their two week annual holiday. I was at Baltasound Hall in 2007 when Frank Strang outlined his plans for Saxa Vord, and who would possibly imagined then that it would achieve the amazing success that it has. We always rent a house at Saxa Vord for a week – and treasure our stays on Unst. There is a careful balancing act to be made on making savings on the cost of ferries – not least having spent capital on the ferries themselves – which present a huge economic opportunity to the whole of Shetland during the now extended tourist season – not simply from people like me – coming up during the school holidays, but the intra-Shetland tourist trade. As an outsider I would happily pay higher fees to get to Unst, and it is fair that tourists pay towards the cost of the infrastructure. I would say however that Unst is developing a growing reputation as an amazing visitor destination – not least because you are at the very roof of the British Isles. One always gets a wonderful sense of adventure getting there – and having arrived we are always greeted with utmost kindness and hospitality by local folk. It is my firm belief that gradually as Europe recovers from the terrible economic troubles it is going to – more and more people will want to visit Shetland and explore all is has to offer. Savings have to be made – but do not destroy the great opportunities there are in future with rash decisions.

  • John Tulloch

    • November 18th, 2012 9:22

    Being Lerwick “born and bred” – a phrase commonly used here to import authority – it seems to me that rural areas are getting the rough end of the stick and that great care must be taken so that the positive rural developments of the oil era are not undone and remote areas reduced to quirky, down-at-heel backwaters populated by ever-shrinking numbers of ageing, unemployed people.

  • I. Anderson

    • November 18th, 2012 19:55

    I totally agree with some of the above comments. I think that the SIC seem to be wanting all the residents of Shetland to live in Lerwick! It has always been a fact that if a rural area needed money, they had to raise it. I cannot think of many times that the Lerwick folk have had to bag pack or the like to raise funds for their football fields, halls etc. They get everything handed to them and I see very few cuts being attached to Lerwick other than maybe switching off some lights! Shortly we will not be able to get on or off our islands, and if our bairns are all going to go to the Anderson High, will we want to live away from Lerwick? As for Mareel, we won’t get the benefit of it either unless we go to a movie in the afternoon because we won’t have a ferry late enough to catch. That’s not going to help that place much as, along with every other establishment in Lerwick, if it wasn’t for the ‘country’ people they would have poorer takings. I think all these things need to be considered by the council and they need to try for a few cuts other than Schools and Ferries.

  • john McPhail

    • November 24th, 2012 0:21

    Still believe using tourist as cash cows is misplaced. While some above believe tourists should be “used” to pay towards infrastructure I can’t help but think that this is somewhat naive. Shetland tourist are confronted with high costs as it is. Multiple times more than many more exotic places. Adding to the costs involved just to get here will put some off, while narrowing down those who can afford it at all. Last time someone visited the two of them paid over £600 just to get to Lerwick via the ferry. Add to that the need for car, fuel and accomodarion then you are looking at a pricey stay. Tourists are fickle. They don’t owe the islands anything. Shetland should be increasing chances for tourists, including those not classed as well to do retired or middle class southerners.

    As for the cnetral belt, I assume you mean down on the mainland and not Scotland, ’cause I can assure you, there is very little being spent anywhere else in the country on vanity projects like the Mareel. All councils are struggling with the same thing. How our politicians have let us down.


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