War of words over ferry subsidies

The SNP candidate for Shetland at the Scottish parliamentary elections in May has accused MSP Tavish Scott of a “cheap smear”, by claiming the isles were being discriminated against over ferry costs.

Mr Scott said following the introduction of road equivalent tariff (RET) in the Western Isles today, which has seen ferry fares slashed, that Shetland was being discriminated against and had got a “kick in the teeth.”

SNP candidate Danus Skene is cautious of the exit poll figures. Photo: Adam Guest.
SNP candidate Danus Skene accused MSP Tavish Scott of a “cheap smear”. Photo: Adam Guest

But Danus Skene said that that Mr Scott knew full well that Shetlanders would pay more if RET was applied to the longer Northern Isles routes.

Mr Skene, who was narrowly defeated by Mr Scott’s Lib Dem colleague Alistair Carmichael in this year’s Westminster parliamentary election, said: “Tavish Scott has chosen to assert that the reduction in ferry fares coming into effect on the west coast routes constitutes ‘unfair treatment’ of the Northern Isles. He knows this not to be the case, which makes his further allegation that the isles are being punished in some way for not having in the past voted SNP a particularly cheap smear. It is time that the Lib Dems showed a little integrity in their arguments.

“The Scottish government is implementing RET on ferry routes for which it is directly responsible where this constitutes a saving compared to current fares. Because so much of the cost of ferry transport is associated with landing rather than the distance of the journey itself, the implementation of RET makes particularly dramatic savings on shorter routes. So yes, the west coast implementation of RET is a major support for west coast islanders.”

But in the case of Shetlanders’ long journeys to Aberdeen, the implementation of mileage-related RET would not be a saving, he added.

According to Mr Skene the ferry cost per mile for a car to Aberdeen is below the real cost of driving, which the AA calculates averages at over 60p a mile. “The Scottish government’s RET commitment will bring down Shetland fares if and when its implementation is to the advantage of Shetland passengers,” he added.

Mr Skene was responding to a press release from Mr Scott which said that “overt and political discrimination against the people of Shetland and Orkney” had been laid bare by today’s announcement.

The statement outlines that cuts to ferry fares of more than 50 per cent are helping 14 ferry services to Scotland’s west coast islands.

Ferry services to Barra, Mull, Eigg, Skye, Raasay, Cumbrae, Muck and Rum benefit from a cut to single passenger fares of an average of 44 per cent, while car fares will be cut by an average of 55 per cent. The Northern Isles have had “increases imposed on both passengers and cars in every year of the eight years of nationalist government”.

Mr Scott said: “Today is a transport kick in the teeth to the people of the Northern Isles. Many Shetland families returning after the October school holidays will wonder what we have done wrong. Why are Shetland travellers not benefiting from fare reductions of 50 per cent to take the car to Aberdeen? Why does this nationalist government only help the west coast of Scotland with fare cuts?

“This blatant discrimination is a disgrace. When I introduced cuts to air fares as a government minister all the islands were

Tavish Scott with the report based on the findings of his health survey. Photo: Dave Donaldson
Tavish Scott says the SNP government’s transport policy is unfair and discriminatory. Photo: Dave Donaldson

eligible. It applied to the Western Isles who elected an SNP MP. It would be totally wrong to discriminate against an island because of how they vote. Yet that is now the inescapable conclusion that local people come to.

“Because we have the audacity not to vote SNP we are being punished. There can be no greater illustration of the cynical politics played by the SNP than their disgraceful ferry fares policy.

“In 2016 we must replace a cynically political government with one that has a fair transport policy based on need, not how islands vote. When and if people respond to the nationalist government’s islands consultation they will want to highlight this disgraceful, unfair and discriminatory policy.”

But Mr Skene said that Shetlanders travelling to Aberdeen are being massively subsidised by the terms of the NorthLink contract which Mr Scott signed off as the minister responsible in 2005.

He said: “We receive much more subsidy per journey than anyone on the west coast, but it is all being spent on the grossly inefficient contract negotiated by the Labour/Lib Dem coalition. For example, the present inappropriate ferries costing £100m will cost over £200m over 20 years because of the terms of the financial leasing arrangement with the Royal Bank.

“The effective subsidy of a passenger between Lerwick and Aberdeen provided by the taxpayer is in the region of £300. This is way above the support given on the west coast, however comparisons are made.”

Mr Skene said that the SNP government was “determined” that the next generation of ferries and their contracts will deliver better service and better value for money.

He added: “It will be got right by working in partnership with the isles councils and transport organisations – the ‘Stag’ process.

“Shetland (and Orkney) internal ferries are run by the councils. RET would bring their fares down. The SNP government recognises that running these essential ferries is an exceptional burden on the councils.

“The answer is not for the Scottish government to take over SIC ferries. Management should be local. But negotiations are in hand to provide new support for the SIC in meeting the costs of providing internal ferry services. This support will be a major equivalent to the support for islanders represented by the RET implementation on the west coast”.

He said that the government was committed to helping islanders to overcome the disadvantages they face because of ferry costs. That was true for islanders in both the North and the West, and “wild accusations” by Tavish Scott must not allowed to pit islanders against each other.

“Judging others by his own standards, Tavish presumes that the SNP government is rewarding SNP voters in the west at Northern Isles expense. It may have escaped his attention that the SNP vote in the Northern Isles has risen of late,” said Mr Skene.


Add Your Comment
  • Kathy Greaves

    • October 26th, 2015 20:48

    As Orkney is so close to the mainland of Scotland, surely their ferry fares must be very low if the mileage-related RET is applied. But maybe not as they also did not vote SNP.

  • Johan Adamson

    • October 27th, 2015 8:30

    The fact is that to take a family of 4 to Aberdeen from Shetland would cost in excess of £500 plus FOOD via Northlink. You NEED a cabin and food as it is overnight, unless the government think it is ok to keep small children up all night and not feed them. A round trip of 400 miles at 60p per mile is £240. This is grossly unfair and the government need to sort it out. And sort out the disparity between Shetland and Orkney inter island ferries in terms of cost to the councils and to islanders and tourists. They are now operating an incredibly unjust system.

    • John Tulloch

      • October 27th, 2015 12:11


      Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) bears no relation to the cost of driving the equivalent distance of Lerwick to Aberdeen. You say a return trip for a family of four with a car costs £500. It costs consideraby more if you start your journey in Aberdeen.

      However, a family of four driving the similar distance, Aberdeen-Glasgow return, would cost around £100.

      People don’t buy their cars to take them to Aberdeen. Once they’re paid for the money has gone and bears no relation to decisions on whether to drive to a destination or take public transport, in this case, the Northlink Ferry. It follows that only costs directly related to miles travelled i.e. fuel, servicing, etc. are relevant.

      Cost of purchase, insurance and road tax have nothing to do with it.

    • Johan Adamson

      • October 28th, 2015 8:53

      We also went to Orkney recently. £310.64 per my reservation details for family of 4, car and cabin on way back (overnight). 121.3 miles x 2 at 60p is £145.56. So much for lifeline service, visiting relatives in Orkney cost us twice the amount it would be at 60p per mile (and others are arguing that 60p per mile is too high). You are penalising Shetland and we need to take this to Europe as it is unfair subsidy of one island group over another.

      Wouldnt it be great if we had a bridge and cheap ferries like the western isles?

  • Peter smith

    • October 27th, 2015 10:30

    Oh dear Mr Skene time for the libdems to show a little integrity in their arguments? Well you lost yours when you gloss over the fact that your SNP colleagues signed a new ferry contract 5 years after they came to power, thus obviously superseding the one you mentioned Mr Scott signing.

  • Spencer Truman

    • October 28th, 2015 5:52

    If you don’t think this is political then I would guess you need a CAT scan (Available at the Gilbert Bain hospital, but only when they can get someone to come to Shetland to operate it!) We have relatives who live in the Hebrides and the ferry is not all the hand outs they get from their SNP pals. Orkney and Shetland are seen as thorns in the side of the SNP and as such appear to get punished for it. Don’t believe me the have a look at DFDS seaways ferry from Newcastle to the Hook of Holland (A journey of roughly 300 miles each way) About £330 return with cabin and car for two people. No subsides here I believe…
    …Don’t ever just read or hear things and take them at face value-It’s easy now to do your research, join the dots and make your own decisions. Something the SNP seem to get irritated about.

    • Bill Smale

      • October 28th, 2015 10:42

      On 31.03.11, this newspaper reported that “NHS Shetland has given assurances that the CAT scanner bought with £1 million raised by the Shetland public is properly staffed and available for emergencies. It has also rejected claims that specialist staff members had been brought in from the mainland on occasion to operate the machine.”

  • Johan Adamson

    • October 29th, 2015 9:08

    If they charged a family for their car and not for the party members as well as the car and not for an essential cabin ie no charge if it is an overnight journey, that might sort it out, that might be closer to the £200 charge that is more like it (rather than £600). Strange that we pay for bairns between 5-15 and then as students they are suddenly free. Also why do our fares have a peak season? If it was a bridge, there wouldnt be any seasonal change in the cost. Just think how accessible Scotland would be for school trips if bairns were free if you just charge for the vehicle and not per child.

    And just think of the increase in tourists if Shetland was suddenly accessible and access not prohibited by cost. Wow.

  • Johan Adamson

    • October 30th, 2015 10:05

    It is not fair that the RET calculation is so structured that is gives the wrong answer to the most remote, longest and overnight journeys. The calculation is wrong, the government need to acknowledge that. It matters not who did what, but what we do about it now. The islanders surely also cannot be penalised by the fact that any contractual subsidy to Northlink is incorrect and very high. I repeat, over £500 for a family to travel to (and from) Aberdeen with a cabin (essential) and a car is much too high, and prohibitive for many.

  • Boabo Birchall

    • October 31st, 2015 2:21

    Trips to the mainland aside. Inter-island routs need to be looked at.
    if we look at the calculation above 60p a mile or even 14p a mile a return trip to the mainland on Yell Sound ought to cost £2.40 or £0. 60p. What pressure is being bought on Hollyrood to increase the subsidy for this ferry service which is a prime candidate for for RET. Before the population of the isles declines to a critical point. At least if nothing is done we can all go and live in greater Lerwick, thus completely saving the SIC the cost and inconvenience of providing a ferry service to the isles.This ought to leave plenty in the kitty for some really magnificent vanity projects, perhaps full size swimming poo for the new Anderson high, save the staff and pupils having to cross the road to Clickimin in the bad weather.


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