The Orcadian Column 07.12.2017

Growing up in Sanday in the late 70s and 80s, the highlight of the week was invariably seeing MV Orcadia steaming into Kettletoft on a Wednesday afternoon. As well as heralding the timely arrival of the Sunday papers, it also signaled that my copy of Shoot! magazine would soon be hitting the shelves in the Parlgo shop.

In those days, the ferry did the rounds of all the outer north isles on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday. As a result, steamer days were a Big Deal. If you were lucky, you could watch sniggering as someone’s prized Ford Capri was hoisted up in a net and lowered into the bowls of the boat. On a high tide, there was also the prospect of seeing sheep trying to march up a gangplank that was effectively a ladder.

Much as I’m happy to look back nostalgically at these memories of a bygone age, it’s perhaps just as well they are a thing of the past. The needs of our island communities have changed almost beyond recognition since then and so, quite rightly, have the ferry services upon which they rely, with perhaps the notable exceptions of North Ronaldsay and Papa Westray.

Even so, while the advent of roll-on, roll-off ferries has certainly changed the shape of the service and opened up far greater opportunities for moving people and freight, one thing remains entirely unaltered. These are the lifeline connections that enable the communities in our smaller isles to survive and, in most cases, thrive.

This is the message I conveyed to parliament again this week, when opening a debate led by the Scottish Liberal Democrats on the future funding of internal ferry services in Orkney and Shetland. By coincidence, the debate took place on Wednesday afternoon around the same time as the MV Orcadia used to pull in to Kettletoft.

The debate was an attempt to expose the current SNP government’s failure to honour its promises over recent years to provide fair funding for internal ferry services in the Northern Isles. Back in 2014, with an independence referendum looming, the former First Minister, Alex Salmond flew into Orkney to launch a document proclaiming the government’s commitment to the “principle of fair funding”.

Even after the referendum was lost, the then Transport Minister, now Finance Secretary Derek Mackay told me in parliament that “the provision of transport services should not place a disproportionate financial burden on any council, particularly with reference to revenue support for ferry services and ferry replacement costs for internal ferry services.”

To date, these warm words have resulted in precisely no firm action. Meanwhile, the situation locally is becoming critical. So are these services placing a ‘disproportionate financial burden’ on OIC and SIC? You better believe it!

In Orkney, it accounts for 14% of OIC’s total annual budget. Unlike similar services elsewhere in Scotland, however, the Scottish Government only funds 40% of these costs, leaving OIC in debt to the tune of £5.5m a year.

For the smallest council in Scotland, already facing a £12m budget shortfall over the next four years, the consequences are potentially horrendous. Deep cuts to health, care, education and other core services, including lifeline ferry services, could follow.

Some argue that OIC should just dip further into its reserves. Yet the same ask is not made of others, whose lifeline ferry services are funded by government. Moreover, imagine the reaction if, for example, Highland Council were invited to plunder their Common Good fund to run railway services north of Inverness.

And these are not Rolls Royce ferry services, either. The government’s own Ferries Plan in 2012 showed that on cost, frequency and capacity, isles communities in Orkney are being short-changed compared to the service provided elsewhere in Scotland.

All of which reinforces the urgent need for the Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay to make good on his promises when he presents his budget to parliament next week.

We have had the talks about talks. We have been told that the principle of fair ferry funding is accepted. What we need now is Mr Mackay to throw our internal ferry services a lifeline. If he does, they may even raise a glass to him in the Ketteltoft hotel.

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