Future for ferries task force unclear after new cabinet unveiled

The task force was originally announced by the former deputy first minister John Swinney.

Future for ferries task force unclear after new Scottish Government cabinet unveiled LDRS

The future of a joint task force set up to look at the business case for new ferries between Orkney’s islands remains unclear one week on from the announcement of the Scottish Government’s new cabinet.

The task force was originally announced by the former deputy first minister John Swinney, who also attended the first and so-far only meeting of the group at the end of January, prior to the recent shake-ups at Holyrood.

The meeting, which was held at the end of January, was also attended by the then minister for transport Jenny Gilruth

She has since been named as cabinet secretary for education and skills in Humza Yousaf’s cabinet.

And, of course, the long-serving Swinney has since left the government.

Despite the new cabinet being announced last week, there has been no word who from the Scottish Government will take responsibility for the task force.

Today a Transport Scotland spokeswoman said they would confirm future arrangements, including attendance at task force meeting by Scottish Ministers and Scottish Government officials, in due course.

Orkney MSP Liam McArthur, from the Scottish Lib Dems, has called for reassurances that the issue won’t be sidelined.

He has urged the new cabinet secretary for wellbeing economy, fair work and energy Neil Gray to step up.

As Gray is from Orkney, McArthur says it would be “entirely logical” for him to add the task force to his portfolio.

McArthur said Gray understands the needs of islanders and the importance of the ferries.

Kevin Stewart has been appointed minister for transport.

However, Gray doesn’t seem too keen on the idea. He told BBC Radio Orkney he was flattered by the recommendation and would take an interest in the task force.

Gray wouldn’t commit to taking on the task force, however.

The announcement of the task force, back in December, came as a huge relief to many in Orkney.

The local authority had been at loggerheads with the Scottish Government for some time, over who should pay to replace the ageing fleet of ferries running between Orkney’s islands.

The majority of the vessels are now 30 years old or more.

While there was much optimism around the announcement of the group, there was also scepticism.

Some worried it was a placating tactic used to stop the council from going to the Westminster government for help.

This is a move that Orkney council’s leader James Stockan had threatened more than once.

Swinney had said the Scottish Government and the council would look at the business case for new ferries together. However, no promises were made.

The minutes of the task force’s first meeting, held on January 31, show that remains the case.

During the meeting, it was emphasised that” both parties had a contribution to make to this process.”

Finding new ferries “would be a joint endeavour” between the Scottish Government and the council.

The council leader also said they could offer operation control of the ferries back to the Scottish Government.

However, Swinney said that was “a different proposition to asking for fleet renewal.”

Cllr Stockan also said the council would be happy to consider being a “test case” for “new ideas, new alternative fuels, and alternative transport.”

The task force is due to meet again early this month.

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