Politicians have been reacting to news that the current NorthLink ferry contract has been extended by 18 months amid plans by the Scottish government to consider bringing ferry services to and from the isles “in-house”.
Assurances are being sought that the decision to extend the agreement with Serco from April next year to October 2019 will not impact on the service.
It comes as the Scottish government has said that it will look into running the Northern Isles services itself, depending on public support for the proposals and clearance around state-aid rules.
The extension was confirmed after previous suggestions that an extension would form part of the ferry contracts procurement review.
Isles MSP Tavish Scott branded the ministerial statement on ferry services procurement “disappointing”. The statement confirmed that no decision has, as yet, been made on whether to make a direct contract for the Northern Isles services, or to continue tendering.
Mr Scott said: “It is disappointing that despite the clear views from Orkney and Shetland in favour of tendering, the government have not made a decision.
“Local people, the freight industry and business see many advantages to tendering in service improvements that benefit Shetland.
“The current operator Serco Northlink is noticeably quicker at responding to local needs.”
He added: “I do not want to see our lifeline shipping services go backwards. A government run service is no guarantee of a better service.
“I also believe that if the government decide they are the best people to run the North Isles links to Aberdeen, the private sector freight operators will set up in competition.
That is what happened before with Norse Island Ferries and it could happen again.
“The government have yet to announce the outcome of the freight fare review that has been underway for three years. I pressed the Transport Minister today to get on with this and he did acknowledge that a decision is needed.
“I want the government to listen to their own feedback, accept that tendering improves the service on behalf of the islanders who depend on it and get on with tendering the next North Isles contract”.
Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston, meanwhile, sought similar assurances from Transport Minister Humza Yousaf.
“With the Serco Northlink contract being extended by 18 months, I sought to ensure that there would be no impact on the service currently provided and that existing commitments by Serco Northlink would be upheld.
“I am pleased that the Minister was able to give these assurances and I will be looking to hold him to those commitments in the coming months and years.
“However this is only the first stage of examining whether the Scottish government brings the Northern Isles ferries in-house rather than putting them out to tender. Ministers have given firm commitments to respect the views of local people before making changes and it is crucial that local people and businesses in Orkney and in Shetland are closely involved in any decision-making process that emerges.”