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.
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:
“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:
“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.
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