A former leader of Highland Council has accused the local authority of using European legislation as “an excuse” not to subsidise the Corran Ferry.
Dr Michael Foxley argued the lifeline service, linking the remote peninsula communities of Ardnamurchan, Ardgour and Moidart to the mainland, brought millions of pounds into the Highland economy.
Council officers last week warned the community service committee that subsidising the route could break state aid rules by distorting competition.
Instead, members voted to consider three options – to increase charges to meet costs, to offer the service to public tender or to transfer the service to Transport Scotland.
However, Dr Foxley, who was local councillor for the area for 26 years, said: “It seems state aid is the bogeyman that gets used every time someone doesn’t want to do something.
“But state aid rules do not apply to the Corran Ferry, so the council cannot use that as an excuse.”
He said a service was not likely to invoke or infringe state aid rules if it was small, unprofitable, in a remote location and not marketed beyond the UK borders.
And he pointed out that the Corran Ferry fitted all these criteria.
Dr Foxley said: “This is a lifeline service and needs to be subsidised by the Highland Council.
“If not, is support for all rural roads, schools and services to be withdrawn?
“Our communities and businesses to the west of the Corran Narrows bring many millions of pounds of salmon, shellfish, timber and tourism into the Highland economy.”
He added that last week’s Rural Parliament, held in Oban, agreed that local communities in rural areas should be empowered to co-design local services.
The former council leader also called for “forensic examination” of the costs of running the service and said that, in all his years on public bodies, he had yet to see a budget in which savings could not be made.
Councillor Bet McAllister, who is vice-chairwoman of the community services committee, said: “Our officers have gone into the state aid rules with a fine-tooth comb and they are telling us there is no way out of it.
“We have to take the advice of our officers and abide by the rules otherwise we will be in trouble.”