A councillor has defended the SIC’s record on ferries after a claim the service was proving too inflexible for vulnerable communities.
Chairman of the environment and transport committee, Michael Stout, has spoken after the head of Bressay’s community council argued pleas to make the service more adaptable to changing needs had been met with silence.
Alistair Christie-Henry described the SIC as “all mouth and no trousers”, insisting folk in Bressay had been unable to work on the construction of the new Total gas plant because ferry times were not adapted to suit. While other ferry routes operate from as early as 6.15am, the Bressay route does not get going until 7am – too late for some to bear.
Mr Christie-Henry said Bressay folk were effectively told “don’t rock the boat” while discussions are held with Transport Scotland over plans for the SNP government to absorb ferry costs, as it does in other island groups.
He said a more flexible approach could have prevented people from leaving Bressay altogether.
He believes Bressay’s population has dropped from 400, way back when fixed links were being discussed as a possible solution, to a little over 300 now.
The changes have left Bressay facing a critical situation despite the efforts of an on-island development body – which aims to reverse the island’s poor fortunes – in recent years.
There are three vacancies on the Bressay Community Council, which have remained stubbornly in place over recent years.
“Bressay exists on its ferry service and if we don’t have a ferry service, Bressay will never survive,” Mr Christie-Henry said.
“The council progresses so slowly when it comes to transport development. My former colleagues on the council will see that as my ‘criticism for [Michael] Craigie’ agenda, but it’s all mouth and no trousers at the council.
We’ve been told for years about how it can benefit Bressay, but the council has done nothing to help – ALISTAIR CHRISTIE-HENRY
“We’ve been told for years about how it can benefit Bressay, but the council has done nothing to help.
“It’s a case of ‘let’s wait to see what the Scottish government will do with our ferry service’. But we’ve been waiting two years for that.
“There comes a point where you have to say the youth of the isle has gone. There’s a gap in our community where teenagers say ‘we’ve finished our apprenticeships, thanks very much, but we’re not going to be biding in Bressay any more’.
“How do we then persuade the council that circumstances have changed and we need a ferry that changes to circumstances? We need a ferry at six o-clock in the morning. We also need a ferry to end at an expected finish time. But there is no provision in there, and there is no vision in the council to say how can we adapt it, how can we amend it?”
He said his comments were not a criticism against the operation of the ferry service or those in charge of the vessels.
“The promise is always there. ‘We’re talking to Transport Scotland and SNP government to absorb the costs of ferry services don’t rock the boat in the meantime’.”
However, Mr Stout said the SIC had “consistently discussed and picked up on” the issue surrounding the ferry service, and the difficulties faced in Bressay.
“The whole bottom line is there is a vast amount of work gone in to the transport issues as much as anything else in Bressay.
“To use the example of the Total gas work – fine, if there had been the early ferry there could have been potential for some folk in Bressay to get some of that work.
“However, the reality was nobody moved from Bressay anyway to go and get that work. There is the overall population decline and there is the elderly population.”
Mr Stout said the community council in Bressay and the development association needed to “do the work, come up with the evidence and work out what the overall community wants”. He argued a “consistent plan” was needed for what the future development needs in Bressay were.
“So, for example, if you’re aiming to get more working folk coming into the place, it could well be that having an early ferry to access work would be a useful thing. But let’s have a genuine consultation and a genuine sense of what the community wants before you spend money on it.”
Mr Stout added the debate came against a background of ongoing work aimed at getting the Scottish government to fully fund ferries.
He said a business case was needed for the Bressay service to be expanded.
“The reality is what’s already been done and what’s happened around the full funding for the ferries is a sight more than what’s ever been done before. We are going in the right direction with this.”
Mr Christie-Henry said the community council was trying to remain positive about potential developments in the future. A transport sub-committee is examining how transport services can be piloted in the island. But a previous demographic study by Bressay’s development association is being looked at “in the round” again.
“The difficulty we have is that we have a community with a rapidly declining population, and a rapidly ageing population.
“We thought in the hey-day when we were looking at fixed links to Bressay a population that was fetching up to 400. Since that heady days and expectations it’s declined to, I think, the population would now be below 320.”
He said the community needed to know more about how to address its long-term needs, in particular how it might serve its older men and women.
“There are no carers resident in the island. So we’re looking at, if we have 100-plus over the age of 60, and it looks like that’s a trend that’s increasing, then what are our needs going to be?
“The community council identified there is that need. There was a short term working group within the community council set up to look into that and ask the questions ‘do we need to have a care home?’ for example, ‘do we need a resident carer?’ do we need a drop in centre.
“A care centre wouldn’t be realistic, certainly not from the public sector, but when you look at private nursing care which is alien to Shetland it works out.
“It’s thinking out of the box, which is what we need to do.”