The Scottish government has been accused of reneging on its pre-election pledge to cut ferry fares to and from the isles – something officials at Holyrood hotly deny.
Campaigner Ryan Thomson says he believes the SNP administration has no plans to reduce the cost of ferry travel until the new contract is introduced in April 2018.
That would be at odds with comments made by new Transport Minister, Humza Yousaf, during a visit to the isles this year.
Announcing a second consecutive freeze on fares in August, Mr Yousaf insisted he was not going to “dilly-dally” over the issue of ferry fares. He added his personal preference was to see fares reduced before the new contract begins.
Mr Thomson, who owns Tagon Stores in Voe, took up the call for a cut in fares after the SNP promised action in the run-up to this year’s Holyrood election.
He launched a petition after the nationalist party was returned to government. That campaign has so far gained around 3,400 supporters.
Speaking this week, Mr Thomson says the SNP has failed to deliver on its pre-election pledge.
However, the Scottish government says it is looking to cut fares “as soon as possible”, once it has worked through almost 2,000 responses to consultation.
Mr Thomson says Shetland’s lifeline service has suffered a 14 per cent decrease in subsidies while the Western Isles has seen their subsidy increase 41 per cent since 2013.
He criticised the consultation period as having been conducted so “quickly, so amateurishly, with very little notification for the public and in such a short window”.
He added he had been told at the consultation meeting that there would be no change before the new contract comes out.
“If there is not any reduction in our fares before April 2018, that’s two years,” Mr Thomson told this newspaper.
“It’s not surprising we’re not seeing anything done. It’s taken seven or eight years for this to even be recognised as a problem.
“The fact that Shetland continues to be ignored by the Scottish government speaks volumes about their interest in us up here.
“They come up here back and fore, and spout this and say that, and nothing ever gets done.
“It’s time that we really started putting pressure on them. I’ve asked for our MSP, Tavish Scott, to do that as well.”
Mr Thomson has written to this newspaper highlighting the problem.
His letter highlights a meeting with Mr Yousaf during his visit.
“During this meeting Mr Yousaf promised many things. First of all he promised we wouldn’t be waiting ‘years and years’ for our fares to be reduced, and that something would be done ‘sooner rather than later’.
“Two months on and after discussing this issue with those in charge of the horrendous consultation it is my understanding that any new fares won’t be introduced until the new contract comes into play in April 2018, a full two years after the elections.
“Mr Yousaf also promised to keep the Fair Ferry Fares Campaign in the loop, including being cc’d into any email correspondence and indeed being kept abreast on any information relating to the lifeline service and the internal ferries. This hasn’t happened.”
Mr Scott said Mr Thomson was “fundamentally right”.
He said the Scottish government had no intention of reducing fares before the new contract comes into play.
“They [the Scottish government] are using every trick in the book, such as using yet more consultants to consult on ferry fares.
“They don’t need to consult – we know what the issue is – they just need to get on and do it.
“I’m afraid I don’t think we will get anything before 2018. But what I think the transport minister should have the courtesy to do is to write to Ryan and, therefore, more widely, to say that.”
After being approached by this newspaper the Scottish government provided a statement from an un-named source. “The Scottish government has made a key commitment to cut fares on ferry services to the Northern Isles and work on this is already under way.
“The Minister for Transport and the Islands commissioned a study earlier this year to look specifically at the issue of fares, with a view to bringing in a new pricing policy and ultimately reducing the cost of ferry travel as soon as possible. Consultants have carried out work with local stakeholders in person, online and by post, with almost 2,000 responses received so far.
“As we have said before, the Northern Isles present a number of challenges for a new fares policy. Bringing in road equivalent tariff in its current form would significantly increase ticket prices on the majority of services. The presence of a commercial operator on some routes also complicates matters.
“Officials will continue to engage and meet with the local councils, elected members, community groups and other key stakeholders to discuss the potential options available to us. In the meantime, ferry fares on the Northern Isles network have been frozen for 2017, the second consecutive year prices have been kept on hold.”