Northern Isles MSPs in plea for cheaper ferries

A Calmac ferry. Picture: TSPL
A Calmac ferry. Picture: TSPL
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Liberal Democrat MSPs are set to demand cheaper ferry fares for the Northern Isles.

Orkney MSP Liam McArthur and Shetland’s Tavish Scott will use a parliamentary debate on island communities to call for their constituencies to be included in the Scottish Government ferry fares subsidy covering west coast island routes.

Mr McArthur said it is “unfair” the Northern Isles are excluded from the Road Equivalent Tariff Scheme which brings ferry fares in line with costs of travelling an equivalent distance by road.

They also want the Government to reverse its decision to exclude island-based businesses from the Air Discount Scheme which provides subsidised air travel for island residents, and have tabled an amendment to the Scottish Government’s motion.

Before the debate, Mr McArthur said: “Centralisation of public services and decision making by the current Scottish Government has been relentless over recent years. Ministers have stripped power from local communities, limiting their ability to shape and determine their own future.

“The promise now is for a Bill that will allow future legislation and decisions to be ‘island proofed’.

“It remains to be seen whether or not this will have any effect in practice. After all, ministers continue to talk the language of centralisation in their plans for health boards, economic development and even education.

“This suggests an end to the one-size-fits-all approach is some way off and that the specific interests of island communities are unlikely to be met.

“An early test of how serious the Government is would be for ministers to address Orkney and Shetland’s continued exclusion from the Scottish Government’s cheap ferry fares scheme.

“Urgent action was promised by the First Minister ahead of the election in May. We now need to see that promise delivered and an end to the unfair treatment of the Northern Isles.”

The Government’s motion “acknowledges that there is more to do to address some of the challenges faced by Scotland’s islands, including remoteness, declining populations, connectivity, and creating sustainable economic development”.

It also notes that an Islands Bill is forthcoming and there are proposals for a National Islands Plan to “strengthen and support the unique needs of Scotland’s island communities”.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government has made a key commitment to cut fares on ferry services to the Northern Isles and work on this is well under way.

“The Minister for Transport and the Islands has held discussions on plans for reducing fares with a number of key stakeholders in Orkney and Shetland. A consultation to look specifically at the issue of fares has recently taken place, with a view to bringing in a new pricing policy and ultimately reducing the cost of ferry travel as soon as possible.

“As we have said before, the Northern Isles present a number of challenges for a new fares policy. Bringing in Road Equivalent Tariff in its current form would significantly increase ticket prices on the majority of services and this is why a variety of other options were consulted on. We also want to ensure that existing commercial ferry operators on these routes are not unfairly disadvantaged.

“We look forward to receiving the consultation report shortly, after which we will be better placed to take decisions on how to reduce fares and the timescales for doing so. In the meantime, ferry fares on the Northern Isles network have been frozen for 2017, the second consecutive year prices have been kept on hold.”