The Scottish Government is playing down suggestions that fares on the Ullapool-Stornoway ferry route could increase in the peak summer months to manage demand.
The move comes after fears were expressed by the Comhairle, Cal Mac’s own Community Board, Western Isles MP, Angus Brendan MacNeil, and local tourism leaders that fare increases could add to the cost of living in the islands while not providing a solution to the lack of capacity on the route during times of peak demand.
Now the Scottish Government is stating that remarks made by Transport Secretary, Michael Matheson MSP, during a meeting of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee ‘do not reflect’ the responses he made to a direct question on the issue, and that fare increases are only one of a range of options being considered.
The Government stressed that the proposal was a part of the published Scottish Ferries Plan, looking at options for services until Summer 2022.
During the Committee meeting, Michael Matheson said of the fare increases: “It was an option that was set out within the ferry plan looking at the possibility of trying to manage demand, particularly in routes that have got Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) in place and the demand that’s increased on these particular routes.
“What we’ve said is that that allows us to look at a number of different options. So for example, it could be the option of higher fares at peak times or it could be the option of incentives at off-peak times, where there’s capacity on the ferry.
“Is there a way in which we can try to shift some of that demand to utilise the resource much more effectively?
VARIETY OF THINGS TO LOOK AT TO DEAL WITH DEMAND
“So there’s a variety of different things we could look at there to try and help to deal with some of the additional demand.”
Mr Matheson added that any move to introduce peak-fare pricing would not necessarily apply to all routes and would be done in consultation with communities impacted by ferry services.
“I’m also very clear about the need to make sure that we engage with local communities both at an individual level and also for local businesses.”
“So if we are looking at doing that on any particular routes, there will be engagement within the local community around that.
“Any demand management arrangements that are put in place would be put in place with the agreement of the local community.”
CALMAC COMMUNITY BOARD CRITICISM
Cal Mac’s Community Board criticised any move to an increase in fares, expressing ‘alarm and dismay’ that an increase could go forward ‘without any consultation’.
A statement issued by the Board stated: ‘RET has been a huge success in both increasing economic activity and creating jobs but also in starting to address the cost inequalities for ordinary people who live on our islands.
‘Bearing in mind the continuing demographic challenges faced by our island communities, it is surprising to think of damaging that success by curtailing demand by increasing prices rather than addressing the core issue of investment in fleet capacity and resilience.
‘This increased economic activity has significantly contributed to the Scottish economy and increased the tax revenues from our islands.
‘The Board questions whether such a proposal has been island-proofed against the legislation contained in the Islands Act 2018 which is designed to prevent further disadvantage to our island communities.
‘The Community Board has consistently offered to work with Transport Scotland, CalMac and CMAL, not only to explore ways of dealing fairly with the immediate challenges but also to help develop a new long-term ambitious Ferries Plan to help grow our islands and communities to the benefit of all.
Angus Campbell, Chair of the Community Board added: “The Board is therefore disappointed that a proposal has been made that may have an adverse effect on the communities that are being served by CalMac without any consultation with those communities.
“The Board recognises that there is a need for urgent action to address the capacity constraints on the ferry network but does not believe that this proposal is an acceptable solution.”
PRICE INCREASE WON’T DEAL WITH LACK OF CAPACITY
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has also expressed concern over what it described as ‘the Scottish Government’s announcement that it is considering an option which would increase peak time fares on west coast ferry routes’.
Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Chairman of Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said: “This is very concerning indeed and shows a lack of understanding for the needs and aspirations of our island communities.
“What we continue to look for from CalMac and Transport Scotland is an increase in capacity on the various routes, not an increase in fares.
“Increasing prices on certain days of the week or certain times of the year would not solve the underlying problem of lack of capacity which is a result of a number of factors including the delay in the delivery of the two new vessels currently being built by Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd, the MV Glen Sannox and Vessel 802.
“RET has made quite a difference to people coming to the Western Isles and we are heavily dependent now on tourism. I think it is important that we stick to the principle of RET and that prices stay at the level they are at at the moment.”
“I am now seeking an early meeting with Michael Matheson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, to discuss these issues.
“I am sure that the Cabinet Secretary would find a locally based perspective helpful, in addition to the other advice he will be receiving.”