Graham Laidlaw of Transport Scotland Ferries Unit flew into Tiree on the morning of Monday 30th January with Cllr Mary-Jean Devon and Cllr Roddy McCuish of Argyll & Bute Council, to meet 20 or so delegates representing the crofting, fishing, construction, retail, tourism and haulage sectors on Tiree and Coll.
The purpose of Mr Laidlaw’s visit was to listen to the islanders’ views on the government decision to remove commercial vehicles from the existing RET scheme. Mr Laidlaw left the island with a petition of 233 signatures.
In a well prepared, composed meeting, the Tiree community made its view clear that this decision will be ‘catastrophic’ for the economies of Tiree and Coll and will leave these fragile islands at ‘breaking point’ with unmanageable increases in costs for businesses and individuals.
Fuel prices, already 25ppl higher than the mainland will go up by another 1.25ppl. Tommy Barbour fuels has been quoted an increase in his ferry ticket from £214.80 to £370.80 for a tanker of fuel to the island. The cost of exporting livestock, the backbone of Tiree’s economy, will increase by 103%. Donald Morrison of United Auctions advised that this is going to make it very difficult to keep customers coming to the island to buy livestock. Small fishing businesses and croft businesses stand to lose £5 – 7 thousand a year. Iain MacKinnon of I.A. MacKinnon Haulage advised that the price of an articulated lorry carrying general goods will double. These costs will be passed onto customers increasing prices of building and agricultural supplies, coal, food and so forth.
Contrary to the government’s justification for its decision that ‘savings from RET have not been passed on by hauliers’ and ‘haulage is largely insensitive to RET’, there is a united view across all sectors that this is not the case. There was unanimous agreement that without RET freight prices would have escalated alongside the increasing costs associated with the industry. Tiree builder Angus MacKinnon pointed out to Mr Laidlaw that freight to Tiree and Coll is ‘ring-fenced’ and not driven by the price of the ferry tickets. Hauliers working on this route are providing life-line services carrying essential goods such as fuel, food and animal feed and exports of shell-fish and livestock. Councillor Mary-Jean Devon pointed out that she was ‘amazed that the government even expected there to be an increase in freight volume due to RET’. It was pointed out that whilst tourist traffic has increased during the RET pilot, tourist spending had not. Tiree was ‘full’ in the high season before RET and is still full. RET has encouraged the same number of visitors to bring extra or larger vehicles and trailers.
The notion in the Draft Ferries Report that tourism has seen the greatest benefit from RET has not been properly researched and the statement is distorted. Proposals put to Mr Laidlaw at the conclusion of the meeting were:
- Ministers could simply instruct CalMac to increase fares across the board by a modest percentage to claw back the £2 million shortfall in the budget for RET.
- That the implementation of the proposal be postponed pending full consultation on how the decision will affect the island economies.
Alan Reid, MP for Argyll & Bute has decribed the Scottish Government’s plans as ‘Outrageous ’. He told An Tirisdeach
“they are robbing Peter to pay Paul. I have written to Scottish Transport Minister Keith Brown pointing out that his proposals will increase the cost of living substantially on the affected islands. I have urged him not to go ahead with these proposals”.
Professor Neil Kay, an Economist at Strathclyde University said that the Scottish Government’s policy on cheap ferry fares is economically illiterate and misguided. He said
“What is the point of offering a shop assistant cheap fares to the mainland if she cannot afford those fares because the business she worked for has just gone bust? You do not need an economist to answer that question – just common sense. No self-respecting economist would support RET as a device to get fares down.”