Fresh delays to the introduction of cheaper fares to travel on ferries to Orkney have sparked a furious backlash on the islands.
The Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) scheme, which was introduced on services to the Hebrides a decade ago, was due to be rolled out on routes to the northern isles by the end of this month.
But the Scottish Government has now admitted that it will not meet the deadline, citing a legal risk and a failure to reach an agreement with operators.
Fare cuts of about 20% for passengers and cars will be introduced on the Aberdeen-Lerwick and Kirkwall-Lerwick services from today, but services across the Pentland Firth will not be included for now.
Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said: “For 10 years, people in Orkney have been denied access to the Scottish Government’s cheap ferry fares scheme, introduced on west coast routes back in 2008.
“After all the promises, it seems the long wait for fairness is still not yet over.
“This news will be met with utter dismay locally and means that islanders and visitors alike will be forced to continue paying more than they should to access our lifeline ferry routes. That is simply not acceptable.”
Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston said: “The move to fairer charging for our ferry links has been beset with delays from the SNP government.
“The transport secretary’s last minute announcement will be extremely frustrating for Orkney residents, businesses and visitors who were led to expect that RET would be place this summer.”
The problem was announced by Michael Matheson on his first day in the newly-created post of cabinet secretary for transport, infrastructure and connectivity.
He said: “On routes to Orkney, it has been necessary to engage with commercial operators on the Pentland Firth.
“We set out a very fair and reasonable proposal that would maintain competition, enabling them to protect their existing market share.
“Unfortunately, not all the commercial operators have felt able to agree to our proposals. This means we cannot currently implement reduced fares on any of the routes to and from Orkney without the risk of legal challenge.
“This is both disappointing and frustrating, but I am determined to work through the issue to see what more can be done.”