Liberal Democrat candidate Alistair Carmichael has again called on the SNP to explain continued delays in road equivalent tariff (RET) funding for the Northern Isles.
Mr Carmichael said Transport Scotland has said it is reviewing how the RET formula – in existence since 2008 – would apply for the Northern Isles.
However, he does not believe that is fair on Shetland and Orkney as the last Scottish islands to be excluded from the scheme.
This week he called on SNP candidate Danus Skene to acknowledge the need for fairer funding for ferry services in the Northern Isles, rather, he said, than being forced to defend the SNP’s inaction.
Mr Carmichael said: “When the Liberal Democrats were in government in Holyrood in 2006 they introduced the Air Discount Scheme for the Highlands, Western Isles and Northern Isles.
“In the coalition government in Westminster, the Liberal Democrats introduced a five pence fuel duty cut for rural communities across the whole UK. Can you imagine the uproar if these schemes were only provided to the Northern Isles?
“The SNP’s discrimination towards the Northern Isles is well known by Orcadians and Shetlanders. However, their stubborn refusal to implement extra ferry funding for the Northern Isles is, once again, completely unfair and economically illogical.
“RET has been benefiting the Western Isles since 2008, and recently it was announced that reductions would be extended to all remaining routes on the Firth of the Clyde.
“The Northern Isles has been left out for too long and I am afraid the response from the SNP government is not good enough.
“Local residents want to know why no steps have been taken to provide fair funding for ferries in the Northern Isles, and why we will see further delays in working out the RET formula for Orkney and Shetland when the Western Isles are reaping the benefits.
“We know that there is a debate over RET’s effect on longer routes – for example, from Aberdeen to Lerwick – but what is indisputable is that the ferry fares would be substantially reduced on other inter-island services, especially in Orkney.
“It is time the SNP understood the importance of ferry services to local businesses, families and tourists to the Northern Isles and redressed this inequality in funding.”
In response Mr Skene said he recognised the need for fairer funding for ferry services in the Northern Isles.
He added the SNP was “committed to levelling the playing field” so that island communities could compete economically with more accessible parts of the country.
“Transport is key to this aspect of our commitment to policies for both prosperity and fairness,” he said.
“Ferries should be as cheap and as efficient as possible. As a general principle, the application of Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) has the effect of containing traveller’s costs.
“The shorter the trip, the more dramatic the RET results, as prices derived from the actual costs of a trip will be greater per mile for short journeys.
“How much the taxpayer forks out to apply RET will depend on the actual running costs.”
If RET was extended to the Aberdeen runs, prices would go up, said Mr Skene.
“The basis of RET calculation was changed on expert advice in 2012, and while the Ferries Plan of 2012 declared that all lifeline ferry services would be RET based Transport Scotland promises “that RET would be introduced to the Northern Isles over a much longer time frame [than the West Coast], in order that no one would pay more for an RET fare than their current standard single fare.”
“If RET were applied now to the Aberdeen routes, travellers would pay more.”
But, Mr Skene said the RET debate veiled the underlying issue. He said the NorthLink ferry costs were “unacceptably high”.
“This is because of a thoroughly bad deal signed by the Lib-Lab coalition Scottish government signed in 2005 whereby the three ferries that entered the service in 2002 are leased from RBS as part of what is best understood as a PFI deal.
“By the end of this contract in 2020, £200 million will have been spent on renting hugely inefficient boats costing £100 million. Much of the rest of the subsidy bill goes up the funnel. The money could have got something better but we are stuck with the deal.
“The NorthLink subsidy costs over £40 million a year, or £300 per passenger trip on the Aberdeen runs.
“Reducing fares on these trips before or after applying RET is a horrendous burden on the taxpayer, much greater than for the West Coast ferries, and all a consequence of Lib Dem ministers’ decisions.
“The SNP will manage the situation as best it can.”
Meanwhile, he said, discussions were underway with Shetland Islands Council and Orkney Islands Council on the most efficient way to support council-run ferries.
If elected Mr Skene said he would be pressing for the “broadest permissible application of ADS discounting.”
He added: “I will also push for transfer of Air Passenger Duty from London to Edinburgh, allowing Scottish government to phase out its application to island flights.”