The Shetland seafood industry has renewed its criticism of the “shameful” way Transport Scotland is dealing with new contracts for the North Isles ferry service.
Seafood Shetland chief executive Ruth Henderson is dismayed at the way the tendering is being handled and says the whole industry is “severely threatened”. She has issued a last-ditch call for the government agency to think again before awarding the contract.
Speaking on behalf of the industry-representative Stewart Building Transport Group (SBTG) Ms Henderson said it was “extremely frustrating” that Transport Scotland failed to understand the freight needs of the seafood producers.
The group has been lobbying for better freight links, including calling for a dedicated Shetland – Aberdeen – Shetland freight route. That plea has been ignored by Transport Scotland, Ms Henderson said.
“The contract, instead, specifies 18 slots are made available on the Ro-Pax [roll-on roll-off passenger] vessels for the transport of time-sensitive freight. This includes seafood, supermarket (chilled, fresh and baked products) and urgent freight consignments for the oil and gas sector.
“The result of this is that on nights when there is no freight service, these important seafood consignments will have to compete with other sectors for space on the passenger ships, leaving the ferry operator with the difficult decision as to what takes priority.
“It is clear that the passenger service is heavily supported by the commercial success of the freight operation. Without such support, Transport Scotland would be looking at much heavier subsidies on the passenger service. Yet the scant regard for this is evident in a tender document that runs to some 53 pages but covers time-sensitive freight in a single paragraph.
“It is shameful that as our seafood sector continues to thrive and grow, and the new fish markets come online, we will be seriously inhibited by Transport Scotland’s failure to deliver an adequate freight service.”
SBTG is angry that consultation promised by transport Scotland had “failed to materialise”.
Ms Henderson’s statement added: “As a result, the Stewart Building Transport group tabled a proposal and future projections in September 2018. We ask Transport Scotland, as a matter of urgency, how the current proposals were arrived at, and, even at this late stage, request the agency to reconsider.
“Addressing the shortcomings in the proposed way forward is absolutely crucial for our thriving but now severely threatened industry – an industry, we would remind Transport Scotland, which is worth some £350 million to the Scottish and wider UK economy.”
Transport Scotland insists that stakeholders including isles-based industries have been involved in the tendering process.
A spokesperson said: “We disagree with the portrayal of the tender. We have undertaken extensive consultation with local communities and key stakeholders, including Shetland’s seafood industry, and Shetland Islands Council in the two years leading up to the tender being issued.
“We believe the tender will deliver the best possible ferry service that meets the needs of the communities of Shetland and provide value for money to the taxpayer. The next contract will allow flexibility so that, where resources allow, it will make it possible to potentially add additional tonnage, new routes and sailings to best reflect prevailing market conditions.”