Mounting calls are being made for the Scottish government to dig deep and help fund internal ferries – on the back of several ferry breakdowns.
North Isles councillor and transport and environment chairman Ryan Thomson is urging the Scottish government to deliver on its promise of fair ferry funding.
Meanwhile, on Saturday the Bluemull Sound service between Yell and Unst was suspended after the Bigga had a technical problem.
A frustrated Mr Thomson took to Facebook on Sunday lamenting the vessels, as well as arguing the need for fixed links.
“Yet more repairs being done on our ageing ferry fleet this morning,” he said.
“Fixed links are no longer a want, but a need, not only for those living on Unst and Yell, but also the tax payer who pay millions of pounds every year for maintenance and repairs.
“Perhaps if the full cost of our internal ferries, plus maintenance, repairs and upgrades to terminals and all capital expenditure was coming out of the Scottish governments budget rather than the SIC budget they might be more open to discussions on how to progress.”
Fellow SIC councillors liked the comment and offered support to Mr Thomson, including North Isles councillor Duncan Simpson.
Mr Simpson said:”First it is essential that our service does not deteriorate any further.
“We must secure funding for the short term as well as for the capital replacement costs. I fear cuts to the service would hasten the depopulation of all isles involved. Action is certainly needed.”
By Mr Thomson’s count, there have been at least 15 times since July where ferries have been cancelled because of breakdowns or unplanned maintenance.
He told The Shetland Times there was “absolutely no question” that a tunnel between Unst and Yell made sense, both economically and financially. In Whalsay there were arguments for and against, he said.
“The more pressing challenge is to get fair funding for our internal ferries,” said Mr Thomson.
“If we don’t get fair funding for our internal ferries the consequences are pretty poor to say it lightly.”
The transport committee chief said the SIC was spending £7.5 million on internal ferries, which should instead be going on the likes of social care and schools.
“It shouldn’t be on the Shetland public to pay that,” he argued.
“It’s becoming more and more pressing and it’s absolutely essential that we get something sorted now as soon as possible.”
Mr Thomson was asked whether the SIC could delve into its reserves, which are in excess of £200 million, to pay for fixed links.
He said the local authority already used its savings – spending about £12-15million out of reserves last year.
“We dip into our reserves every single year to pay for our revenue costs. It’s the capital we don’t touch in terms of our reserves.
“The capital makes us money and the money we make on that capital is already paying for the services that the Shetland Isles needs.
“We do spend the reserves and we do spend the money that the reserves make for us.
“If we start spending the capital you can only spend it once. As soon as the reserves are gone you’re going to face a cliff edge.”
He said like other local authorities the SIC was faced with a reduction in government grant, but when it came to ferry funding “all we want for our internal ferries is what the Scottish government promised us.”
• For a more in-depth article on ferry funding, see this week’s Shetland Times.