Transport Services (Island Communities)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 5th March 2020.

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Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

4. To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that transport services meet the needs of island communities. (S5O-04223)

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

We are committed to providing a transport system that works for communities across Scotland, including our island communities. That is why since 2007, despite real-terms reductions by the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Government has invested over £2 billion in ferry services across the country, including new routes, new vessels, upgraded harbour infrastructure and cheaper fares. Last year, NorthLink Ferries recorded a satisfaction rating of 97 per cent.

Close engagement with communities has been vital to our investment in services, and will continue as we develop the new strategic transport projects review and the successor to the ferries plan.

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

I have been contacted by several constituents and visitors to Shetland who have complained about the high cost of getting to the isles. I know of someone who was charged almost £500 for return flights from Edinburgh to visit family in Shetland for Christmas.

When families have crises and need to travel to or from the mainland, such costs make already stressful situations even worse. The Government has a role in those extortionate costs, as the owner of Highlands and Islands Airports Limited. Does the minister agree that isles passengers are being penalised? Will he set out what the Government will do to make sure that people are not charged over the odds?

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

The first thing to do is to acknowledge to Beatrice Wishart and other island representatives that we recognise the challenges that island communities face in respect of making journeys to the mainland and the high cost of travel. The Government is doing everything it can to maintain lower costs for people who have to commute to the mainland, or who travel for business or pleasure, and we will continue to do that.

My colleague, Michael Matheson, is working hard to ensure that HIAL takes its responsibilities to island communities seriously, but I would be more than happy to meet Beatrice Wishart to discuss particular issues that she is aware of, and to take them forward with my colleagues.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

The 2018-19 budget granted £10.5 million in funding for interisland ferry services in Orkney and Shetland. That came with a promise to find a sustainable solution for interisland ferry services, which are a lifeline for their communities. When can the islands expect to find a sustainable solution for interisland ferry services?

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

The Government is keen to work with all parties on the budget process. Kate Forbes is hoping to cement the budget in Parliament shortly.

I encourage Rhoda Grant to engage with me. As she knows, we have been working hard with Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council and Argyll and Bute Council to find long-term solutions for their internal ferry services. I am pleased to say that this year we have, in the budget that is due to be approved by Parliament, provided a solution that will resolve issues in Argyll and Bute.

We have continued our discussions with Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council. There are specific issues in relation to both, including differences in relation to how they fit with the routes and services methodology

, fare structures, and the funding arrangements as they stand. Those arrangements are complex. I commit to Rhoda Grant that we will continue discussions with colleagues in Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council to try to reach a solution as soon as we can.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

In light of the Scottish Government’s decision to extend free bus travel to under-18s, what consideration will it give to allowing young island residents on Cumbrae and Arran, for example, to travel free on ferries?

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

I acknowledge Kenneth Gibson’s strong commitment to improving services for residents of Cumbrae and Arran, and other parts of his constituency.

We have committed to a national concessionary travel scheme for free bus travel for people aged 18 and under from January 2021, subject to completion of the necessary preparations, including due diligence and research. We will engage with young people across the country to ensure that all areas benefit from the measures.

Support is provided for young people who use ferries through the YoungScot national entitlement card. Young people between the ages of 16 and 18 who live on islands receive four vouchers for single trips or two returns from the islands to the mainland. In addition, under-16s travel for half the adult fare, and under-5s travel completely free.

I would be keen to hear from Mr Gibson, if he has any specific proposals.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

This year’s budget shows that, once again, the Scottish Government has no serious ambition to deliver genuinely fair funding for Orkney and Shetland ferries. Will the minister go into next year’s Scottish Parliament elections once again making promises to the islands that he has no intention whatsoever of keeping?


Hear, hear.

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

Jamie Halcro Johnston’s colleagues in the UK Government have failed to provide a budget in advance of the Scottish Government budget. That creates significant uncertainty for the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and for the Government in pushing forward our budget, because we do not yet know what we will receive from UK ministers.

I am sure that Jamie Halcro Johnston will, if he is serious about commitments to fair funding for services in the Orkney and Shetland islands, have made representations to Kate Forbes during the budget process about including additional funding for ferries for Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council. If he has not done so, he is guilty of gross hypocrisy, on which he should reflect.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

There was news this week of agreement between Orkney Islands Council and the Scottish Government on funding a replacement for the MV Golden Mariana. Will the minister confirm that that will pave the way for agreement on replacement of other vessels in a fleet that provides genuine lifeline services to the island communities and constituency of Orkney, which I represent?

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

I know that Liam McArthur’s question is a genuine one on behalf of his constituents. On the agreement that we are trying to reach with Orkney Islands Council, we are trying to provide additional funding. As Liam McArthur knows, there are on-going discussions with the council about the longer-term position for Orkney Ferries. As I outlined to Rhoda Grant, they are complex discussions that involve differences in fair structures and alignment with the routes and services methodology: we believe that Orkney is below the RSM standard.

Given funding constraints, these are not easy matters, but I assure Liam McArthur and Jamie Halcro Johnston that we continue to have discussions with the council and will look for a long-term solution for the islands.

Photo of David Stewart David Stewart Labour

The minister will be well aware of the news that broke overnight that regional airline Flybe has collapsed, which is putting at risk 2,000 jobs across the United Kingdom. Will the minister urgently raise the issue with the First Minister—who is, I note, in her place in the chamber—to assess job losses in Scotland and to provide specific aviation support in the Highlands and Islands, such as endorsing a public service obligation for the service between Wick and Aberdeen?

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

Those are important issues. I assure David Stewart that the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson, is actively dealing with the matter.

The situation is obviously very serious; our thoughts are with the staff of Flybe, who face a horrendous situation, as do the customers who have been affected by what happened overnight.

In relation to the Highlands and Islands region, which David Stewart represents, I put on the record that Flybe does not currently operate in any of the islands, although Flybe’s franchise partner, Eastern Airways, operates the Aberdeen to Wick service and has confirmed that it will continue to do so, which is obviously great news for people who are served by Wick John O’Groats airport.