Decision to put the Northern Isles Ferry Service out to tender was a missed opportunity

This article first appeared in The Orcadian.

The Scottish Government’s recent decision to put the Northern Isles Ferry Service out to tender, rather than bring it into public ownership, was disappointing and a wasted opportunity.

The Minister for Transport and Islands had the chance to bring the service ‘in house’, thereby ensuring it was operated exclusively in the interest of communities in Orkney and Shetland. Instead he has ensured that Serco, who operate the service at the moment, or some other multinational corporate giant, can still run a service. This is problematic because that statutory obligation placed on any limited company is to maximise profit for its shareholders not put islanders first.

Of course, public ownership in and of itself does not guarantee that the service will be successful. However, if the Scottish Government ran the service it could ensure that any subsidies given to the route, or profits made from running it are reinvested into the service, and not pilfered off to private shareholders. It would also ensure that staff terms and conditions could be protected.

The Scottish Green Party are unequivocal in our desire to see public services, including the Northern Isles Ferry Services and the Orkney and Shetland internal ferries, run exclusively in the public interest rather than handed over to these predatory multi nationals who can afford slick advertising agencies but whose first port of call to generate profits is to attack the terms and conditions of the very staff who deliver their service.

Regardless of who delivers the service, the public rightly see a role for politicians in the provision of public transport. The Minister claims that putting the franchise out to tender reflects the public’s view, and whilst that MAY be the case, that same public will rightly hold the Scottish Government to account for any shortcomings, as will I.

The Scottish Government is due to bring its Transport Bill before parliament in the coming weeks, and I will seek to use this vehicle to progress the Scottish Greens’ desire to see a different approach taken to transport across Scotland.

The Scottish Government this week welcomed the UK Government’s support for a third runway at Heathrow Airport, a shocking error of judgement both in terms on the negative environmental impact and the fact that it will do nothing to address growing levels of inequality.

The Scottish Government, in common with the three other parties in the Scottish Parliament, positively salivates at the vanity road projects, happy to spend £6 billion on the A9 and the A96 alone.

Successive Holyrood administrations have presided over a decline in bus patronage and we believe that the Lothian Bus Model, operated in the country’s capital, and now in East Lothian, shows that buses can be operated to the highest standards by a public operator, and make a profit.

Lothian buses scores well on frequency, cleanliness and predictability, the same unfortunately cannot be said about many of the bus services on Orkney. There’s no mushrooms growing in the windows of Edinburgh’s bus fleet! I’ll be pushing for the Transport Bill to afford Orkney Islands Council the opportunity to design and operate the quality bus services that Orcadians so desperately need.

Of course bus services already receive considerable subsidy from government, but it is clear this could be better spent.

The Bill also presents an opportunity to ensure that services are better co-ordinated. It’s vital that bus and ferry timetables line up, at both ends of the journey, so government promises about ‘smart ticketing’ need to be delivered on.

Passengers should only need one ticket for their journeys, rather than multiple pieces of paper often required at the moment. It is important though, that in introducing integrated ticketing across transport modes, we get the best system available.

The Scottish Greens will always work with others, where we can, to improve Scotland’s public transport infrastructure.

The focus must change, however, from mega investment in climate trashing road and aviation polices that favour the wealthiest, including proposals to hand international airlines an aviation tax bung, fortunately on the back burner for the moment, to more equitable investment in ferries, buses, trains and cycle lanes that facilitate everyone in our communities.