The Leader of Orkney Islands Council is asking for a rethink by the First Minister after receiving a “frustrating and disappointing” response to a call for fair funding for local ferry services.
In an open letter to Nicola Sturgeon MSP, Councillor James Stockan expresses his concern that the First Minister has failed to respond directly to matters of fundamental concern to the council - or to meet to discuss the “irrefutable discrimination your Government is applying to the people of Orkney”.
Councillor Stockan is looking for full funding for Orkney’s inter-island ferries to be included when the Scottish Government publishes its Budget later this week.
He has also asked the other political parties at Holyrood to back the Council’s call to be treated fairly.
The council Leader originally wrote to the First Minister in December, describing how the Government’s repeated failure to fully fund local ferries had left remote and vulnerable communities with an inferior service compared to other areas of Scotland.
There could be no justification in treating Orkney differently to other communities with lifeline ferry routes, he wrote – pointing out that Government had agreed more than five years ago that the costs involved should not result in an unfair financial burden for local authorities.
He added in the letter: “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.”
In a response to Councillor Stockan, the Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, Paul Wheelhouse, says Orkney Islands Council is “wholly responsible for the inter-island ferry services which they provide”.
He says Minsters understand the “significant financial challenges that can fall on individual local authorities with responsibility for ferries” and that the Government has “made clear our commitment to Orkney’s internal ferry services” with additional funding of £10.8 million in total over the past two years.
Councillor Stockan said: “I am extremely disappointed that the First Minister has chosen not to respond to our considerable concerns directly, or to meet with me to discuss an issue of fundamental importance to our community.
“I can only describe the Government’s current position as irrefutable discrimination against the people of Orkney. The additional funding we received over the last two years was welcome, but fell far short of what is needed to fully fund our internal ferry service.
“I call on the Government to address this when the Budget is published this week – and I have asked the other parties at Holyrood to offer us their full support in securing full and fair funding for Orkney.
“The running and replacement costs of Western Isles ferries are fully subsidised by the Government. It is only right and proper that we in Orkney should be treated in the same way.”
In the letter, Councillor Stockan also criticises the Government for its continued failure 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 our firm belief that there is no impediment preventing RET being introduced on Orkney routes and that any further delay is unfair and will result in significant prejudice against local ferry users.”