Shetland hustings held on 29th May, broadcast here on BBC radio, were fascinating for all sorts of reasons.
Some were trivial – like being struck by the photograph of the candidates heading the BBC broadcast linked above – and wondering if men never take their trousers up t0 fit them properly. Liberal Democrat Tavish Scott and Scottish Nationalist, Danus Skene, both had surplus material swimming around their ankles – and it does distract the eye.
Some matters were interesting because they were counter intuitive. The Conservative candidate, Cameron Smith, who presented himself as having seven years experience of working in the EU in Brussels, spoke with a local Shetland dialect, while the SNP candidate, Danus Skene, spoke with a cultured English accent.
A key matter of serious substance was the first question raised – ferry fares.
Internal ferry fares in the Shetland island network are very expensive and an unavoidable part of going to work for very many Shetlanders. The sheer cost of getting to work is a disproportunate and barely affordable percentage of their available income.
Fares for the passage from the Scottish mainland to Shetland and from the Scottish mainland to Orkney are very high and have not benefited for the Road Equivalent Tariff [RET] discount scheme put into place by the SNP government for the entire west coast mainland and islands. This brings fares there [here] down by around 50%.
The SNP government argument appears to have been that RET would not benefit Shetland because the equivalent road journey from Aberdeen to Lerwick would actually cost more than the current ferry fare.
Even if that were an defensible explanation – which it is not – it does not excuse the SNP government from its failure to put RET on fares to Orkney.
The Northlink Ferries fares on the 90 minute crossing to Orkney are seasonally adjusted and are:
- Adult Single: £16.85 [Low season]; £18.00 [Mid season; and £19.00 [Peak season].
- Car Single: £53 [Low season]; £55.00 [Mid season]; and £59.00 [High season].
Compare this with the RET fares now charged on CalMac Ferries on the route nearest to the passage time for Orkney – from Uig in northern Skye to Lochmaddy in North Uist – a passage time of 1 hr 45 minutes [105 minutes], 15 minutes longer than the 90 minutes to Orkney. These RET fares are:
- Adult single: £6.10 year round
- Car single: £30.00 year round.
The fact that Orkney and Shetland are served by a single ferry operator, Serco Northlink, presents no obstruction to the SNP government putting the RET subsidy on the fares to Orkney.
The fact that the equivalent road distance from Aberdeen to Lerwick, the ferry route to Shetland, is said to be be more expensive than the current ferry fare and therefore makes the introduction of RET a negative move, does not absolve the SNP government of the duty to make the ferry fares to Shetland affordable. The current situation is indefensibly discriminatory.
RET was one formula which allowed state subsidised ferry discount schemes to be introduced on the west coast. It is of course not the only sustainable defence. There will be other criteria that can be legitimately applied to support the reduction of fares to Shetland – and the avoidance of unintended and highly disadvantageous discrimination is one of them.
The seasonally adjusted Northlink fares to Shetland – a long and weather exposed passage that takes 12h 30m direct from Aberdeen to Lerwick and 14h 30m on the days that this service routes via Kirkwall in Orkney – are:
- Adult single: £27 [Low season]; £34 [Mid season]; £41 [Peak season];
- Car single: £109 [Low season]; £139 [Mid season]; £146 [Peak season].
Making the Shetland ferry route run from the Aberdeen mainland was driven by the logic of connections in the oil industry. The accepted general logic of more expensive ferry travel is to use the shortest possible ferry route with mainland roads taking the rest of the journey.
Using Wick in Caithness as a ferry port for Shetland would have been the logical move – and would have brought economic development to a town and an area in serious need of it. Wick has an airport and has the North Highland Line rail link to Inverness – whose needed upgrading would have been driven by the pressure of ferry travel with Shetland. In terms of the Aberdeen terminus, oil industry personnel take the air route from Aberdeen to Shetland in any case.
The internal ferry fares for the inter-island services run by Shetland Islands Council bunch routes and fares in a way that makes some 15 minute journeys twice as expensive as half hour ones. For example, the fares for the Mainland to Bressay service – a 15 minute passage – are the same as the fares from Mailand to Yell, a 30 minute passage – with a standard single ticket on both routes costing £5.30.
The Scottish Government’s failure to address the discriminatory position of ferry fares to the Northern Isles – and to recognise the bus-equivalent nature of inter-island ferry services and fares in such archipelagos is an enduring wrong that is long overdue righting.
A last matter worth noting in the Shetland hustings is the extent to which they are so much better mannered, so much more on issue, so much less aggressive and so much less directed at ‘playing the man’ than are the mainland hustings we see and hear in Argyll.
The extent to which Scotland itself is an internal union of very different cultures underlines the value of unions as a concept – we all learn from differences and benefit from the hybrid of collective strength.