Good things, they say, come to those who wait. This leaves unanswered the question as to whether or not the wait should have been necessary in the first place. Nevertheless, the news last week that Orkney and Shetland are finally to be granted access to the Scottish Government’s cheap ferry fares scheme was welcome for all that.
The scheme itself, of course, was introduced back in 2008 in one of the first acts by the incoming SNP administration. It was targeted solely at ferry routes serving the Western Isles, a Labour-held constituency that the SNP had targeted and won in the 2007 election.
Initially, Ministers claimed that it was only a pilot, albeit one running for more than three years and conveniently extending beyond the next election. When pressed on why Orkney and Shetland routes were being wholly excluded, SNP Ministers appeared wholly incapable of coming up with a consistent, never mind credible line of argument.
The first excuse was that the SNP had only promised it to the Western Isles. Then, perhaps recognising how shamelessly partisan this looked, Ministers sought to argue that the need for reduced ferry fares was far greater in the Western Isles. When this excuse was holed beneath the water line by the roll out of the scheme to every other ferry route on the west coast, we then heard that Orkney and Shetland would get it in due course. This changed at the point where firm timetables were sought, and the claim was made that Orkney and Shetland would see fares rise if the scheme was introduced on Northern Isles routes.
On and on it went, with SNP Ministers and their loyal backbenchers taking it in turns to tell me and my Shetland colleague, Tavish Scott to pipe down and stop making trouble. Coming from SNP MSPs who had been elected to represent all of the Highlands & Islands, this was particularly unforgivable.
There was even the crass suggestion that if Orkney and Shetland would only vote SNP they might be treated fairly by the government. Not surprisingly, such breathtaking arrogance was treated with the disdain it deserved locally.
People in the Northern Isles knew that this was no way for a government, responsible for acting in the interests of all Scotland’s island communities, to behave. As a result, support for the campaign that Tavish and I led to have Orkney and Shetland included in the scheme grew quickly and strongly. Without the support of those in both communities who added their names to petitions or wrote in to express anger at the SNP’s stalling tactics, it is doubtful that last week’s announcement would have been made.
The outcry reached a fever pitch last year during the Holyrood elections, prompting Nicola Sturgeon, during a visit to Shetland, to repeat her promise that the Northern Isles would see their ferry fares reduced. Again no timetable was offered, but a commitment to ‘urgent action’ was given.
To be fair to Humza Yousaf, who was subsequently appointed as Minister for Transport and the Islands, he immediately accepted the need to deliver. Both in discussions with me and Tavish, and in the parliamentary chamber, the Minister undertook to put in place arrangements that would cut ferry fares ‘significantly’. The detail of last week’s announcement will need to be analysed, but it seems clear that Humza Yousaf has honoured his commitment in cutting passenger and car fares by 40% and 30% respectively from next year. Importantly, these reductions will apply on all Pentland Firth routes.
Needless to say, such a good news story merited a visit to Orkney and Shetland, and I was pleased to welcome Humza back to the county for a series of visits, including a trip out to Papa Westray. This was particularly good to see as too often ministerial visits are focused solely on the Mainland. It also gave me an opportunity to remind the Minister of the pressing need for improvements in our internal ferry services, including replacement of the fleet
So good things come to those who wait, even if that wait is unjustified. We also now know the importance of not taking no for an answer.