Orkney’s MSP, Liam McArthur met with the Transport Minister, Jenny Gilruth MSP to discuss a range of ferry-related issues.
Shetland’s MSP, Beatrice Wishart also took part in the meeting.
The Northern Isles MSPs raised the frustration of islanders who remain unable to book NorthLink sailings beyond March 2023.
In response, the Minister confirmed that an announcement was imminent, which would allow forward bookings to be made in the very near future.
Mr McArthur and Ms Wishart also returned to the issue of ‘shared cabins’ and the knock-on impact that the current ban on shared cabins is having on the value of islander travel vouchers and the cost of travel more generally.
Ms Gilruth acknowledged the problem and offered to look into how the value of concessionary vouchers could be protected in the event of any change to cabin policy.
The meeting also allowed Mr McArthur the opportunity to stress again the importance of Orkney’s internal ferry services being included in the final Islands Connectivity Plan, which will succeed the National Ferries Plan later this year.
It follows last month’s announcement by the Deputy First Minister that a ‘ferries taskforce’ is to be established with Orkney Islands Council which will seek to feed into the 2024-25 Scottish Budget process.
However, a draft long-term plan for vessels and ports published by Transport Scotland on 30 December failed to incorporate these Orkney’s internal services, an omission that the Minister again indicated would be addressed.
Commenting afterwards, Mr McArthur said:
“As we head into a new year, there remain many long-standing issues facing Orkney’s lifeline ferry services.
“It was helpful, therefore, to meet with the Transport Minister to discuss how progress might be made in addressing some of the most immediate concerns.
“Of course, the priority is seeing the replacement of Orkney’s ageing internal ferry fleet.
“While the establishment of a ‘taskforce’ involving Transport Scotland and OIC is welcome, I reiterated the need for this to have active ministerial engagement, which Ms Gilruth accepted.
“The Minister also helpfully acknowledged that any final Islands Connectivity Plan, which will replace the National Ferries Plan, must recognise the importance of Orkney’s internal services.
“Hopefully, these developments will pave the way to finally making a breakthrough on this crucial issue.
“On our external routes, the inability to make bookings on NorthLink sailings beyond April has caused real frustration for islanders and visitors alike.
“The Minister recognised the inconvenience caused and offered a commitment that this will be resolved “imminently”.
“She also agreed to look at how similar difficulties could be avoided again later in the year.
“Finally, with the ongoing halt to ‘shared cabins’ for mixed households, many constituents have found the value of their islander vouchers reduced and the cost of travel increased.
“It is clear that the policy on ‘shared cabins’ is under review, but I welcome the Minister’s acceptance of the need to ensure that any change must protect the value of vouchers and not push up the costs of accessing these lifeline routes.”