The Conundrum of Fair Ferry Funding

There has been a bit of a stooshie this last week over the funding of Orkney’s internal ferry fleet with grandstanding from political parties on all sides.

ferry 3rd July

Northlink Ferry Stromness (F Grahame)

Currently the Northlink Ferries which ply the route to mainland Scotland will cost  over £200m over 20 years because of the terms of the financial leasing arrangement with the Royal Bank. This was the deal signed off by Tavish Scott LibDem  MSP for Shetland when he was the Transport Minister in the Scottish Government in 2005. It was a coalition Government formed between Labour and the Liberal Democrats and it has tied the Scottish tax payer into many PFI style arrangements.

The Scottish Government will introduce Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) on the Pentland Firth Crossing. For the Aberdeen route to both Orkney and Shetland a variant of that scheme will be used due to the distances involved. Passenger fares will be cut by an average of more than 40%, whilst car fares will be reduced by an average of more than 30%. This applies to ferries operated by Northlink. Pentland Ferries are to receive a subsidy as part of the ferry fares package.

The announcement was welcomed at the time by Leader of Orkney Islands Council James Stockan who said:

James Stockan

Leader of Orkney Islands Council James Stockan

“I welcome the Minister’s announcement that there will be a significant reduction in fares on all routes linking Orkney with the Scottish mainland.”

“The Council has been working on this with the Scottish Government for a considerable time. We have long wished to see travel south made more affordable for the people of our islands – and tourists encouraged by cheaper fares to visit Orkney in even greater numbers than they do today.”

“We expect reduced fares to result in considerably more traffic on our external ferry routes, as they have on the West Coast of Scotland. The Minister’s commitment to provide parity with the West Coast routes and an overarching fares policy will benefit our community greatly.”

Local MSP Maree Todd, SNP in response to the subsidy being provided for the Northern Isles ferries said:

Maree Todd MSP

Maree Todd MSP

“Travelling by ferry is often not a choice for folk in the islands so it is absolutely essential that ferry travel is affordable for islanders.

“Lower ferry fares mean a better deal for the hundreds of customers and businesses that depend on the ferry service in the Northern Isles and I am delighted for the local campaigners who got behind this policy and worked so hard to ensure it was delivered sooner rather than later.”

And now our attention is turned to the internal ferry fleet which all will agree needs replacement boats and a reduction of fares. The boats which move between the islands of Orkney are vital to the sustainability of the island communities. And all those comments above about the ferries  to the Scottish Mainland and their importance to our local economy apply equally to the internal ferries.

Next week the minority SNP Government in Edinburgh will be presenting its budget to the Scottish Parliament. The budget needs the support of more than the SNP MSPs if it is to pass. Now is the time for any other political party to negotiate with the SNP and Derek Mackay, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution, if they want a budget that would be good for their constituents.

Will the LibDems support the Scottish Budget as presented  by Derek MacKay if it includes increased funding for Orkney’s internal ferries?  

We shall have to wait and see.

Bur there’s another element to the issue……..The Islands Bill.

The Islands Bill is the result of close and successful collaboration between the 3 Islands Authorities and the Scottish Government. It is currently progressing through the Scottish Parliament. It would result in an Islands Plan with powers being devolved to Orkney including Marine licenses and Island Proofing. Other powers would also come with the Crown Estate Bill which will see those monies being in the hands of Orkney.

Edward Mountain convener of the Scottish Parliament’s RECC said :

 “The Scottish Government’s Bill also covers significant issues, such as the requirement to make sure new policies and legislation don’t disadvantage the islands, and marine licensing for coastal waters. The Committee’s role is to ensure that the Bill contains the right measures to deliver on these objectives.”

Click on the video to hear what Edward Mountain said when visiting Orkney in October.

Presenting evidence to the RECC when it visited Orkney in October both Shetland and Orkney Island Authorities had a united response to questioning by the committee members.

Shetland is none too pleased that Orkney has now gone separately to the Scottish Government to plead their individual case for fair ferry funding for internal ferries.

At the RECC meeting Orkney’s representatives said that the Islands Bill was key to Orkney’s aspirations for sustainable development with enabling powers which could deliver community benefit along with  the use of revenues from the Crown Estate to come to the local economy.

Islands (Scotland) Bill

Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2017. Licensed under the Scottish Parliament Copyright Licence Credit Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

Both island authorities stressed that they wanted the management of the Crown Estate and the revenues from it.  James Stockan said :

‘ The revenue must follow the activity.’

‘We want the levers to make our economy work….compared to other islands in the EU we are light years behind.’

It is disappointing that there is now fragmentation in what was a united approach by the  three Islands Authorities which saw  the Islands Bill introduced into the Scottish Parliament.  Orkney also now faces a bit of a puzzle.

Does it want to take back control over issues vital to our islands or will it expect the Scottish Government in the form of Transport Scotland to be running our internal ferry fleet?

It is a bit of a conundrum is it not?

Do you want the levers to make your economy work? or

Do you want power over running a vital island service to be in the hands of a central government agency?

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

4 replies »

  1. This problem has been rumbling on for years, even before the Scottish Parliament was set-up. It should also be noted that while in the coalition Government for eight eight years the Lib/Dems failed miserably to address this problem in fact the only thing that Tavish Scott managed was the disastrous PFI contract for the three new gas guzzling ferries.

    So, I don’t believe that we should be taking any lessons from them especially when it comes to Northlink and RET where Tavish is on record in the Shetland Times when he said, “If RET was applied to Northlink like it is being proposed for Clyde and Western Isles, then fares would rise due to the very high level of subsidy already being provided to the routes from Aberdeen to Shetland and Orkney. The Pentland service was a different matter”. For us who use the service we all know that the single biggest cost is that for a cabin, especially as you can get a 3/4* hotel in Glasgow or Aberdeen for about £89.0 per night and that includes a cooked breakfast, you can check prices on Northlink website.

    When it comes to Inter-Island services I believe the current problems lie in historical service provision. On the Clyde pre WW2 there was a multitude of companies the various privates running ferry services which all changed when at the time of the Nationalisation of the Railways these companies were grouped together as Caledonian Steam Packet Company (CSPC) or loving known by us Clydesiders as ‘Cannae Sail Past the Cloch’, this nationalisation also included the various ferries operating out of Stranraer, Dover etc but not under the aegis of CSPC. There was one exception on the Clyde and that was the daily Royal Mail, mail service from Gourock to Inveraray, departing every day including Christmas from Gourock at 09:00 Mon – Sat, apart from Sundays the only two days it did not sail was New Year and 2nd January, this was run by David MacBrayne and the ship was the RMTS Saint Columba.

    As a wee story to add to above. Apart from Glasgow Fair Saturday one of the busiest sailings of the year was on Christmas Day (Not a Public Holiday in Scotland until 1958, Boxing Day wasn’t added until 1974 when 2nd January became a PH in England) and was lovingly known as the ‘Christmas Booze Cruise’ as the Columba was the only licenced premises open in Scotland (Apart from Hotels for guests). Service started the minute the lines were cast-off and didn’t end until the lines were back on at Gourock. It was party all the way and everybody was a tad foo by end of trip – Oh, Happy Days.

    Back to the main business, no matter how pleasant the memory is, so, CSPC, apart from Inveraray mail service, provided ferry services on the Clyde and David MacBrayne served the Western Isles. Incidentally MacBrayne’s held the Royal Mail contract to carry mail throughout the Highlands and Western Isles. Some of you might remember the green and red buses with their unique ‘Post Box’ that you could flag down and post your cards and letters. This contract also led to the popular ditty, “The Earth unto the Lord belongs and all that it contains, except for the Highland Piers and Lochs for they are all MacBrayne’s.

    As for the North Isles over the years they were served by a number of companies and many will still remember sailing from Leith on the St. Ninian for Orkney or ‘The Earl’ for Shetland which included a inter-island service, ‘flit boats’ and all this service also included Mainland stops as well including Hillswick where they even built their own hotel, The St. Magnus Bay Hotel. Other local services were provided on an ad hoc basis until the demand for Ro-Ro car ferries became un-stoppable and SIC and OIC took over and were fiercely independent wishing to retain total local control over their respective ferry services. This was a situation that Messrs. Wallace and Scot were in their eight years unwilling to address for fear of upsetting their ‘supporters’.

    So, as you can see the problem is historic and to date it has been the present Scottish Government that has even tried to do something about it. I would also encourage people to go and look-up for themselves the basic cost for a foot passenger travelling Lerwick to Aberdeen (night sailing) and the longest Western Isles crossing Ullapool to Stornoway (day sailing) and considering distances involved I think any reasonable person will agree the North Boat is quite reasonable, it is only when you add-on cabins, food and cars do the costs start to stack-up.

    I’ll just say to Tavish, you lumbered us with these gas-guzzlers and crazy PFI contract, so no lectures please. Finally I’ll remind him he did nothing to secure an Aberdeen by-pass, duelling the A9, providing a third Forth crossing, reopening the Border Railway and he was also complicit in the Edinburgh Trams fiasco and the contract for the new Parliament building……..! Want me to go on Tavish, Jim and Liam?

      • Hi Calum,

        Yes you are quite correct I should maybe have said that the direct, point to point, service is the Ullapool to Stornaway. Perhaps you can help but as my memory serves me I believe that none of the current Western Isles fleet have cabins available?

  2. Here’s a purely selfish angle – I can’t fly, as I have a bad back, can’t sit for long, would take an age getting up and down the steps, and can’t manage getting in and out of the seats ( I know, anyone who sees me dancing would find this hard to believe – but – it’s a matter of different kinds of movement). So………….traveling by ferry is my only option, which is fine by me, as, to me, it’s all part of the trip. But, when it isn’t for a holiday, and it is, truly, a vital service, it needs to be treated differently to a luxury service.
    I also have a gripe about how Serco messed about with the crossing times – that business about the ridiculously early start, and thereby being able to flog folk a berth for the night – what a swizz! We’ve never done it – we just don’t get that crossing, but….many holiday makers have to curtail their last night on Orkney, to be up in time, or……pay for a cabin. As I said, that’s another gripe. My main point is – it really is the only way to travel, for some people, so………………….
    I got the ‘plane to North Ron – as it’s such a short flight, and the people were so kind – sitting my by the door, providing a box for me to stand on and helping me in an out, so, it was just a matter of stepping in, sitting down, and stepping out. No problem.
    Individuals can be so thoughtful – companies and governments can tend to be …..otherwise.

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