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Lochaber councillor Allan Henderson has defended Highland Council’s decision to increase fares on the Corran Ferry following a fiery budget meeting last week.
At a Highland Council meeting on Thursday (February 14), Fort William and Ardnamurchan councillor Andrew Baxter lodged a last-minute amendment to the council’s budget plan in an attempt to block a price hike on the lifeline ferry service. Mr Baxter’s proposal to introduce a £1 foot passenger charge, rather than increase all fares by three per cent as set out in the budget, was rejected by councillors.
Holding aloft a Corran Ferry ticket at the meeting, Mr Baxter told the council: ‘For those on the Ardnamurchan peninsula this is their passport to work on the mainland, its their passport to go shopping in Fort William and its their passport to medical appointments at the Belford Hospital. But it is also probably the most expensive piece of paper in the Highlands.’
However, Caol and Mallaig councillor Allan Henderson said Mr Baxter’s remarks were ‘over exaggerated’ and that the ferry fare increases are reasonable, considering the increase equates to just seven pence for locals who buy a concessionary book of tickets.
‘The concessionary books, that all locals are able to get, means the three per cent increase this year is seven pence per journey for all locals that can get a book,’ Mr Henderson said responding to Mr Baxter at the meeting.
‘As for foot passengers, of course, why wouldn’t we charge for them now? I think it’s high time we started doing that. But I think at this moment to make policy up on the hoof we need to get the actual figures and bring this back to the committee.’
Speaking to the Lochaber Times after the budget meeting, Mr Henderson explained that Highland Council had made a concession that if the three per cent increase for 2019/20 was accepted, it would look at charging foot passengers in the future and issue 20 tickets per book instead of 30, to try and mitigate against any increases in 2020/21 and 2021/22. He felt it was ‘strange’ that Mr Baxter did not support this option.
‘People accept that reasonable increases will take place from time to time and seven pence on a trip for regular users is reasonable. The council were able to limit this small increase to seven pence by taking on a bigger risk on the insurance policy for the vessels. This, however, leaves the council with a half million pound excess charge.’
Mr Henderson continued: ‘I know this will affect locals and regular users just the same as every other increase that they face will affect them, but as it has been pointed out, costs do go up, as well as the crew having to get regular wage increases, otherwise the ferry will not be sustainable.
‘Increases and inflation are a fact of life. We also have to remember that this is within the context of a £30 million budget cut by Highland Council without any redundancies planned.’
Mr Henderson vowed to talk to senior officers about how Highland Council can keep the ferry ‘on an even keel budget’ without implementing the 3 per cent in the following years.
He added: ‘It is important that Highland Council keeps this service sustainable as they look at the possibility of other operators, be that CalMac or community ownership, while also looking at the longer term fixed link option.’
Councilor MacLean, who seconded Mr Baxter’s proposal for a foot passenger charge in place of general fare increases, said it would make for a more sustainable future for the ferry.
‘I don’t think foot passengers would worry paying it,’ he said. ‘It’s a long drive round, but it’s an even longer walk.’