Shoppers in the Western Isles capital, Stornoway were startled on Saturday by a strange cacophony of sounds. The sticks and drones of a small pipe band competed with the raucous Klaxon horns of half a dozen articulated trucks and a similar number of vans as a rally of truckers made its way to the Town Hall.
The rally was organised by the Outer Hebrides Transport Group (OHTG), a recently-formed group of haulage businesses who are angry at the imminent expiry of the pilot Road Equivalent Tariff scheme for commercial vehicles on Western Isles ferries, which runs out at the end of this month.
The RET discount scheme was introduced in 2008 by the SNP Government to reduce ferry costs in an attempt to keep prices in island shops down to the same levels as those on the mainland. A similar scheme was also established to make personal travel cheaper, for the benefit of both islanders and tourists.
A report commissioned by the Scottish Government and published in July 2011, criticised the scheme as having been ineffective, claiming that haulage companies had largely failed to pass on savings of £1.5 million per annum to their customers. Consequently, the government announced earlier this year that the personal scheme for passenger cars and vans would be made permanent, but the commercial scheme would be scrapped.
Following protests from island businesses, a £2.5 million transitional relief fund was set aside to reduce the impact of the cut, and a number of other measures were taken to protect smaller hauliers and shellfish companies. This was not sufficient for the OHTG members, however, hence the rally in Stornoway on Saturday.
David Wood of Woody’s Express Hauliers and spokesman for the OHTG claims that withdrawing haulage RET risks 100 jobs across the local economy. He said, “The knock-on economic effect could escalate to nearer £10 million for the wider community.”
Local Hotelier, Shonnie MacRitchie, has even warned that the islands may soon run out of beer as a result of the increased ferry costs.
SNP Councillor, Philip McLean stated, “The SNP group supports RET – it was an SNP Government that brought in RET – and we have supported Alasdair Allan MSP in his efforts to secure recent concessions such as the £2.5 million transitional relief for hauliers, reduced ferry fares for carriers of live shellfish (less than a quarter of the pre RET cost) and the extension of RET to vans up to 6 metres.”
A new report has been commissioned by transport secretary, Kieth Brown, and this will be used to help form a replacement scheme over the next two years. It seems that RET for commercial vehicles is now dead and gone, but it will be interesting to see what its replacement looks like.