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Scottish Government discriminating against Orkney, says council leader

James Stockan has written to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon calling for an end to what he views as discrimination against Orkney.

The Scottish Government has been accused of “blatant discrimination” by Orkney Islands Council leader James Stockan.

In a scathing letter to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Councillor Stockan says two issues require immediate resolutions — the long-running sagas of funding for Orkney’s internal ferry services and the roll-out of Road Equivalent Tariff (RET).

“There can be no justification in treating Orkney differently to other communities with lifeline ferry routes,” the OIC leader said after penning his letter to Scotland’s First Minister.

“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.”

The government’s failure to fund the ageing inter-island ferry fleet has left Orkney’s most remote and vulnerable communities with an inferior service compared to other areas in Scotland claimed Councillor Stockan.

Following a lengthy battle, the council secured £5.5 million in additional government funding for internal ferry services for 2018/19 — described by Councillor Stockan at the time as the “most significant financial breakthrough” made by the council in years.

The air of positivity failed to last however.

OIC say they need £6.8 million to run services in the current financial year — £1.5 million more than the Scottish Government allocation.

“This is a burden that most other Scottish councils do not have to bear,” Councillor Stockan continued. “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.”

RET was also in Councillor Stockan’s sights.

The tariff, which would see cheaper fares for all when travelling across the Pentland Firth, has been mired in legal proceedings with Pentland Ferries making a complaint to the European Commission.

From the outset, those at Holyrood said they were committed to see the scheme introduced within the first six months of 2018. However, there appears to be no resolution in sight as we now head into 2020.

“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.”

In response, a Scottish Government spokesperson indicated that the government was committed to finding a resolution to the issues raised.

The spokesperson said: “At present, Orkney Islands Council are wholly responsible for the inter-island ferry services which they provide.

“However, the Scottish Government understands the significant financial challenges that can fall on individual local authorities and we have made clear our commitment to Orkney internal ferry services with the provision of additional revenue funding support totalling £10.8 million in the last two years.

“We continue to discuss long term solutions with both Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council. We established a working group to examine these issues and we are now in receipt of the final report which we are currently considering.”

The spokesperson continued: “It is the responsibility of individual local authorities to manage their own budgets and to allocate the total financial resources available to them, including on ferry services, on the basis of local needs and priorities, having first fulfilled their statutory obligations and the jointly agreed set of national and local priorities.

“Ultimately, it is for locally elected representatives to make local decisions on how best to deliver services to their local communities.

“Ministers remain committed to pursuing all avenues to deliver RET for Orkney and Shetland, however, the first step is to resolve the complaint that Pentland Ferries have made to the European Commission.”