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Ferries

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 6th November 2019.

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Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

In the northern isles, we are dependent on our ferry links. I have used them since I was a child. We have seen different operators come and go; there have been some areas of improvement, but services have also come under increasing pressure. Today, I will focus on the publicly supported services in Orkney and Shetland: the northern isles ferry service, which is operated by NorthLink Ferries, and the interisland internal ferries that are operated within their areas by Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council.

I turn first to the internal ferries. As early as 2012, the Scottish Government said that it recognised the unfairness of the situation, in which costs fell to the local authorities. By summer 2014, in the middle of that year’s referendum campaign, the then First Minister Alex Salmond was trying to win support in the northern isles. He told all who would listen that the SNP would bring about fair funding

“in the provision of ferries and ferry infrastructure”.

Two years later, in 2016, a working group was established to consider how to deliver that promised fair funding—work that should have been done years before.

Meanwhile, island representatives worked together, relentlessly pressing ministers. In response, the SNP Government obfuscated and quibbled until, eventually able to bluster no more and under the weight of pressure from island politicians of all political colours, it delivered a one-off payment to both councils. However, that was not the long-term, sustainable commitment that the islands needed. The figure that was settled on then, which met the financial asks of the council then, does not meet the needs of those services now. Therefore, year after year, the island councils are forced to make the case to be allocated the fair funding settlement that, so many years ago, the Scottish Government and, at election after election, SNP candidates promised.

That is despite the our islands, our future campaign, which resulted in this Parliament passing the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, which required the creation of a national islands plan by the Scottish Government. However, despite its lengthy discussions about fairness and parity, there was not a single commitment on the fair funding of those lifeline ferry services.

The current instability and uncertainty over the future settlement are causing concern in our islands, and that is before we talk about the impending need to replace vessels, which Liam McArthur highlighted.

I turn to the northern isles ferry service—the main service that connects Orkney and Shetland with the Scottish mainland. Again, it is a story of promises made, promises made again—and again—and then delayed and delayed again.

The Scottish Government promised us lower fares but, instead of those fares being implemented in the middle of 2018 as promised, there was piecemeal implementation for Shetland and nothing for Orkney.