The Leader of Orkney Islands Council has sent a strongly-worded open letter to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, accusing the Scottish Government of ‘blatant discrimination’ in the funding of local ferry services.
Councillor James Stockan said the Government’s repeated failure to fully fund Orkney’s inter-island ferries has left remote and vulnerable communities with an inferior service compared to other areas of Scotland.
“There can be no justification in treating Orkney differently to other communities with lifeline ferry routes,” he said. “It is more than five years since the Government agreed that the costs involved should not result in an unfair financial burden for councils like ours.
“But today, as we look to the year ahead, there is still no commitment from Ministers to provide us with full and fair funding over the long term. Unless that changes, Orkney will be left with the oldest fleet and the highest fares in the country – and that can only be described as blatant discrimination.”
After a lengthy battle, the Council secured £5.5 million in additional Government funding for inter-island ferry services for 2018-2019.
Further funding of £5.3 million was provided by the Government for the current financial year – but this was insufficient to meet the ever-increasing burden of operating an ageing fleet of vessels.
“This is a burden that most other Scottish councils do not have to bear,” Councillor Stockan said. “The greater the burden placed on the Council to keep the ferries running, the greater the risk of severe cuts to other vital services our community depends upon.
“We need a long-term commitment from the Government to fully fund the cost of running the service and replacing vessels with modern, cheaper-to-run ferries of a standard you would expect on routes as important as these.”
In the letter, Councillor Stockan also takes the Government to task for failing to introduce Road Equivalent Tariff on routes linking Orkney to the Scottish Mainland.
“The roll out of RET began on West of Scotland ferry routes more than a decade ago, reducing fares for local people visitors alike,” he added.
“It is outrageous that we in Orkney are still waiting for RET and that there appears to be no urgency or political will from the Government to resolve this.
“Again, this is a clear case of discrimination against Orkney and our community will find it abominable that the money the Government has saved by failing to introduce RET on our routes has been spent elsewhere – when it could have been committed to supporting our internal ferry service.
“This is why I have written to the First Minister and appealed for her to intervene and ensure that Orkney is treated as fairly as other coastal communities with lifeline ferry services.”
Orkney’s inter-island ferries operate on routes linking Orkney Mainland with smaller North and South Isles communities.
In ‘Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities’ - its response to the Our Islands Our Future campaign published in June 2014 - the Scottish Government said it “understands the significant financial challenges that can fall on individual local authorities, and is committed to the principle of fair funding in the provision of ferries and ferries infrastructure”.
The Government added that it recognised that the “provision of transport services should not place a disproportionate financial burden on any Council … with particular reference to the revenue and ferry replacement costs of the internal ferry services of Orkney and Shetland, and commits to meaningful negotiation now to conclude this issue”.