Tavish Scott: Northern Isles cheaper ferries plea ignored

Next week many Orcadians and Shetlanders will head for home. The school holidays are drawing to a close. Most families will take the boat north to Kirkwall and Lerwick from Aberdeen. But at what cost? Island families with a car will pay £500 to use the Scottish Government funded ferry service.

NorthLinks Shetland to Aberdeen service. Photograph: Kevin Emslie

Most Scottish families do not face that kind of travel bill. The ferry service is the islanders’ motorway. It is our route to Aberdeen, Glasgow or Edinburgh airports for the flight to the sun. So in addition to the cost of a Mediterranean holiday, island families pay a £500 surcharge.

That is one of those extra costs to living on an island. But some islanders around Scotland have had the reality of their travel costs recognised by the SNP government. For the past nine years – yes they have been our government for nine years – ferry fares to Scotland’s west coast islands have been reduced. To great fanfare, successive Scottish transport ministers have been found extolling the benefits of a 50 per cent cut to ferry fares on the west coast. Quite right too. A transport policy that reduces the costs of ferry fares to more affordable levels is admirable. But Orcadians and Shetlanders keep asking, why not us? What do we have to do to see our ferry fares fall? Why are we treated so unfairly?

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During an electioneering visit to Kirkwall and Lerwick in April, the penny dropped with Nicola Sturgeon.

She declared, “A re-elected SNP government will begin work immediately to look at how we can reduce fares for the Northern Isles and provide greater support to businesses and residents in Shetland and Orkney.”

Four months on from that commitment – or vow depending on your point of view – what has happened? Nothing.

The new Islands Minister, on his first visit to the Northern Isles, failed to deliver on the cuts that were promised. No timescale was given to islanders on any reduction in fares. The minister first tried to say that our fares were affordable until taken to task by island campaigners. If Humza Yousaf’s Glasgow constituents had to pay £500 for a taxi to the airport there would be government action.

It was less than two months ago that I had optimism when the new Islands Minister recognised the need for urgent action to bring down the cost of ferry fares when Orkney’s MSP, Liam McArthur, and I met him within days of his appointment. We constructively made clear to him that we understood details of how this would be done needed to be worked out, but it was important the Scottish Government came forward with a detailed plan as soon as possible. All too sadly, however, with this announcement he has failed his first test.

SNP ministers can no longer justify playing one island community off against another. We need to see the Northern Isles treated fairly. That means getting the same support that has been available on west coast routes, where tens of millions of pounds have been used to halve fares. It is simply outrageous that the SNP government still excludes Orkney and Shetland from its cheap ferry fares scheme. This has cost local businesses, particularly in our vital tourism sector, and put our local economies at a competitive disadvantage.

You don’t need to take my word for it, just look at the weight of support locally. Over and above the support both Liam McArthur and I have received, Ryan Thomson, who owns Tagon Stores in Shetland, has recently gathered over 3,300 signatures demanding fares be reduced for our lifeline ferry services.

Liam McArthur and I will continue to stand up for the interests of Orkney and Shetland with all the energy we have – that’s what people asked us to do the length and breadth of our constituencies on 5 May. Delivering on ferry fares reduction is our top priority, and we will be sure to keep the SNP’s feet to the fire to make that happen.

Tavish Scott, MSP for Shetland and a former transport minister.