Shetland MSP Tavish Scott has criticised the Scottish government after a scheme offering cheaper ferry fares on the west coast was not extended to the Northern Isles.
The road equivalent tariff scheme has operated in the Western Isles since 2008 and was introduced in Islay, Colonsay and Gigha two years ago. Islanders in Arran will benefit from the scheme – which links ferry fares to the cost of travelling an equivalent distance on land – when it is introduced there in the autumn.
This week the Scottish government announced that the scheme would be rolled out to a further 14 ferry routes next year, including services in Barra, Mull, Eigg, Raasay, Cumbrae, Muck and Rum.
But there is no sign of the RET, which applies to passenger fares, as well as cars, small commercial vehicles and coaches, being introduced in Shetland and Orkney.
Mr Scott claimed the Northern Isles had been ignored and said this week’s announcement was an “independence bribe”. He said island councils in Shetland and Orkney must be left wondering why they speak to the Scottish government.
While not pressing the case for RET on the North Boats Mr Scott plans to ask whether the government has had any discussions with the SIC and OIC over road equivalent tariff (RET) for the islands’ internal ferries.
He said: “Our Islands Our Future (OIOF) is meant to be a serious negotiation with government over the assistance Shetland needs for our economic future. Transport is always top of that list.
“So it beggars belief that the SNP announce another independence bribe for the west coast but ignore our islands.
“Road equivalent tariff might help Shetland’s internal ferry services as fares are increasingly prohibitive. Yet the SNP government have not even offered our council any assistance on this.
“RET might mean lower ferry fares for local people. That would be a significant help for hard-pressed island economies.
“Shetlanders will wonder what the point of OIOF is following this decision. Islanders now ask me if there is a blatant policy of nationalist discrimination against the northern isles in the run up to the independence referendum in September.”
Orkney MSP Liam McArthur joined Mr Scott in levelling criticism at the government. He said introduction of the RET in the Northern Isles would reduce the cost of getting to and from the islands and bring associated economic and social benefits.
Mr McArthur insisted that should be a “key commitment” of any government but must be done “on the basis of fairness to all”.
He said: “Spending millions of pounds of public money targeting a scheme at some islands but not others will strike most people as unfair an unacceptable.”
However, Transport Scotland insisited introducing the RET for the Northern Isles would increase the fares due to the longer distances involved.
In a message sent to The Shetland Times by a communications official the department stated: “We have made a commitment that no one will pay more for an RET fare than their current standard single fare, therefore the intention is to phase in the introduction of RET to the Northern Isles over a longer timeframe.
“We are committed to an overarching fares policy and are considering how any such formula might best be implemented between various communities across the network.”
Announcing the extension of the RET to the remaining ferry routes in the Clyde and Hebrides ferry service earlier in the week, transport minsiter Keith Brown said it would deliver “significant fare reductions” from the start of the 2015/16 winter timetable.
Mr Brown said: “We have already seen the positive impact of RET on other ferry routes around Scotland – this further roll out is expected to bring similar economic and tourism benefits.”
Mr Brown anticipated that the reduced fares would lead to a spike in demand for the services. “The Scottish government remains committed to assessing the affordability of ferry travel to and from our island communities, with the aim of bringing in cheaper fares for islanders, tourists and businesses,” he added.