There has been a mixed response to the announcement by Transport and Islands Minister in the Scottish Government Humza Yousaf that the contract for the Northern Isles Ferries will be put out to tender.
Leader of Orkney Islands Council James Stockan said:
“I am pleased that the Minister has come to a decision, allying any uncertainty that could have built up around how our lifeline ferry links with the Scottish Mainland will be provided in future. I believe the Minister has listened to the views put forward on this and responded by announcing that the next contract to provide Northern Isles ferry services will be put out to tender.
“We have always worked well with the previous operator, NorthLink, and the current provider, Serco NorthLink. Our challenge has never been with the operator, but with the level of service provided under the current contract.
“That’s why we will be negotiating for improvements, including the restoration of a year-round middle-of-the-day return crossing of the Pentland Firth, proper refit cover, and freight fares on the Pentland Firth that are in line with those charges on similar-length crossings elsewhere in Scotland.
“Given that the consultation that led to today’s decision will have considerably delayed the award of the next contract, we will be asking for these improvements to be introduced during lifetime of the current contract – as well as being key components when the new contract comes into force.
“We will be looking for meaningful dialogue with the Minister and with Transport Scotland on this.”
In contrast to this local MSP John Finnie , Scottish Greens said:
“I am bitterly disappointed by the Minister’s decision to put the Northern Isles Ferry Services out to tender. The Scottish Government has missed a real opportunity to deliver a publicly owned service, run in the interest of communities in Orkney and Shetland. Instead the service will continue to be run for the benefit of private shareholders.
“This decision will come as good news to the likes of Serco, who will no doubt be queuing up to reap the subsidy and profits that come with running these lifeline services, in the full knowledge that if anything goes wrong it will be the public finances that bear the brunt.
“If this is the direction of travel from the Scottish Government then it is extremely concerning and brings into question how serious it is about bringing forward public bids for other major transport services such as ScotRail.
“The Scottish Green Party has long championed the public ownership of our vital transport services; it seems this government is quite content to let the private sector cherry pick the profitable bits, hardly the actions of a progressive government.”
The Northern Isles Ferries are currently operated by Serco Northlink. They ply the lifeline routes between Orkney, Shetland and the Scottish mainland. The procurement bids will open in June with a decision hoped for in the summer of 2019.
Humza Yousaf said:
“We have always said we would take the views of the local community into account when it came to the procurement of the next Northern Isles Ferry Services contract. Through the consultation process, it’s become clear that the preference of the local communities is for this contract to be put out to tender, rather than a direct award to an in-house operator.
“In addition, the latest correspondence from the European Commission means satisfying European Law for a direct award will take us beyond the currently extended Northern Isles contract.
“As a result, we will start the tender process next month in order to allow enough time to complete this high value and complex procurement, ensuring that communities and businesses have the certainty they need. Delaying this any further would put the continued delivery of ferry services at risk, something I am not prepared to do.
“The decision to tender the Northern Isles contract does not change my position on the future approach to be taken for the next Clyde and Hebrides contract. I remain minded to make direct award to CalMac if we can satisfy all the necessary criteria.”
In his statement Councillor Stockan also raised the issue of reduced ferry fares for journeys to and from the Northern Isles
James Stockan :
“We are still awaiting an announcement on the introduction of RET on Northern Isles ferry routes. I hope there is a speedy resolution and agreement reached with the local operator on the Pentland Firth. This needs to happen soon, or our community will be disadvantaged.”
Orkney’s aging inter island fleet is also struggling and in the Scottish Budget of 2018 OIC was awarded an extra £5.5million to help with the funding of the inter island fleet to keep fares down. Ferry Fares & Funding for Schools: the Scottish Budget
Reporter: Fiona Grahame