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Orkney’s Ferries in the Spotlight

Varagen Orkney Ferries

The future of Orkney’s ferries will be the focus of a visit by the Scottish Parliament’s Net Zero, Energy & Transport Committee.

Edward Mountain MSP will be visiting Orkney over two days as part of the committee’s work looking into A modern and sustainable ferry service for Scotland

The petition which sparked this off was launched by a Uist islander, Liz Mcnicol, into the difficulties experienced in the Western Isles which is served by CalMac. The petition received 674 signatures.

In March of this Year the committee decided to undertake an inquiry into the ferry services serving all our islands. 

In Orkney the interisland ferries are run by Orkney Ferries, which is owned by Orkney Islands Council. Councillors made the decision several decades back (1987) to continue to control and operate the ferries which operate between the islands. The ferry fleet is an ageing one and in 2020 OIC went ahead and bought replacement ferry ‘The Nordic Sea’ with half the purchasing cost being paid for by the Scottish Government. This issue of the failure of The Nordic Sea, the mismanagement of its purchase and its mounting costs, has been covered by The Orkney News many times.

The Nordic Sea in April 2022, in Stromness, now tied up in Kirkwall

In 2020 OIC was given an extra £750,000 towards the cost of the Nordic Sea which the council had bought at an estimated capital cost of £1,535,000. That is a saga that continues.

In December of last year the Council’s Head of Marine Services, Transportation and Harbour Master, Jim Buck admitted that the process to get the Nordic Sea into service ” has taken longer than some had expected.” That was in anticipation of her  inaugural journey on the Papay to Westray route on 3rd December 2021.

Ahead of the visit by the Scottish Parliament committee, the convener Edward Mountain MSP said:

Edward Mountain MSP

“An efficient and reliable ferry service is the absolute backbone of island life. But the delays and cancellations islanders are having to endure are making the lives and livelihoods of islanders more and more difficult. 

“We want to see a ferry service which is appropriately funded, reliable and with the resilience in place to ensure the long-term viability of island life. Without this, the stark reality is that island communities and their businesses are at risk.  

“Hearing first-hand the hopes and aspirations of the people of Orkney will provide valuable evidence and context to help us inform Scottish Government policies and strategies and to secure a positive outcome for islanders across Scotland.” 

During the visit on Monday 28 and Tuesday 29 November Edward Mountain will meet with representatives of Orkney Islands Council in addition to hosting a roundtable discussion with local groups. He will also travel on a ferry to Shapinsay hearing from representatives of the island’s Community Council and Development Trust whilst on board. 

Liam McArthur Orkney Constituency MSP, LibDem, is concerned about the safety of Orkney’s ferry fleet and he raised this issue in the Scottish Parliament. Liam McArthur said that the situation was ‘perilous’ . Commenting after his exchange with John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister of the Scottish Government, Liam McArthur said:

“With confirmation that the Deputy First Minister is due to meet OIC shortly to discuss budgetary issues, renewal of the internal ferry fleet must be high on the agenda. With public safety now flagged as a risk, the time for kicking this can down the road is well and truly over. Scottish Ministers must recognise their responsibility in helping deliver safe and reliable ferry services for all island communities.”

The Autumn Statement by Rishi Sunak, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer will put huge restraints on how the Scottish Government will be able to use the funds it is given in order to run services in Scotland. John Swinney has said that £1billion in savings will be needed to be made in the Scottish Budget.

John Swinney said:

“Inflation is eating away at the Scottish budget, and due to the lack of additional funding in 2022-23 and the financial restrictions of devolution, we have had no choice but to make savings of more than £1 billion.”

Pay claims by teachers and health workers if agreed upon will also have to be met out of the Scottish Budget.

Finding the money to hand over to Orkney Islands Council which is very much needed to replace Orkney’s ageing ferries sits very uncomfortably with the fiasco of the wasted money the council spent on The Nordic Sea. If Orkney is to have replacement ferries or some other solution such as fixed links then it is vital that there is much more accountability of those making the decisions and spending our money. If you are able to meet with Edward Mountain on his visit and to share your views with the Scottish Parliament’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee please do so.

Related article: Future Ferries: A View From The Islands

Fiona Grahame