CHEAPER ferry fares to west coast island have helped support businesses amid concerns over increased pressure on communities, a new study has revealed.

An independent evaluation of the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) scheme, which focused on the islands which received cheaper fares in 2015, shows a number of positive findings - as well as warning the policy is causing strain on ferries and local infrastructure.

RET is a distance based fares structure after the Scottish Government committed to provide one single overarching fares policy across the country's entire ferry network.

The new study was undertaken before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Around 25% of island residents made more ferry trips as a result of the policy while some 40% of businesses reported an increase in turnover.

RET boosted the "visiting friends and relatives" market, whilst making it easier for island residents to access mainland goods and services.

READ MORE: SNP's low emission ferries pledge 'going backwards'

Most islands have seen an extension of the tourism season, according to the report.

Overall, the rollout of RET has led to an estimated average fare reduction of 34% for passengers and 40% for car traffic on the CalMac network.

It continues to save travellers around £25 million a year.

The report highlighted that while locals “feel better off” after RET being introduced, more people “now think their community is a worse place than prior to RET”, but warns “these figures are however, dominated by the islands in the First of Clyde, Bute and Cumbrae, and Mull and Iona”.

The document points to “concerns over ferry and infrastructure capacity” raised by island communities.

It adds: “One of the main factors contributing to dissatisfaction amongst island businesses is the impact of RET on available vehicle deck capacity on the ferry.”

More than half of businesses asked said their trade “has been negatively affected by a lack of vehicle space”.

Businesses also warned that the ease and comparatively low cost of being able to take cars onto ferries is “increasing the number of residents travelling to the mainland for goods or buying mainland services”.

The report also raises fears that RET is “encouraging visitors to buy goods on the mainland and take them to the island in their car, rather than travelling as a foot passenger and buying on-island".

It adds: “Congestion and traffic management issues on several islands are also seen to make on-island work more difficult, particularly for tradespeople travelling between jobs and public transport operators.

“This was deemed to be a particular issue in Mull.”

READ MORE: Barra facing empty shelves and expired food amid ferries crisis

It is estimated that RET is now costing the Scottish Government around £25m per annum in revenue support, of which around two thirds is attributable to RET for vehicles less than 6m in length.

Since RET was first introduced in 2008, it has cost the Scottish Government a cumulative £120m (to 2018) in reduced fares revenue.

The report says that the expansion of RET to the 2015 islands has "significantly ramped-up the annual funding requirement”, adding that “around £100 million of revenue support will be required every four years to maintain RET fares at their current level, compared to their previous non-RET level".

It adds: "Outwith the additional revenue cost of RET, the increase in demand in island communities has created other cost pressures, which in many cases organisations are struggling to address or are diverting money from other sources to mitigate RET impacts.

"These have included - the increase in visitors to the islands and the increased propensity for both residents and visitors to take their car on the ferry has caused capacity challenges on several routes across the network.

“This has created challenges for the operator in terms of managing demand, maintaining punctuality and, at various ports, safely and efficiently managing traffic. Vessels’ operating days are also longer with fewer lay-up days than previously scheduled. This is putting added wear on already ageing assets which is impacting on the technical reliability of the service."

READ MORE: CalMac: Western Isles council rejects Transport Scotland proposals to reduce ferry service

Islands Minister Paul Wheelhouse said: “I’m very pleased to see the scheme helping on a number of levels by supporting island economies and the local tourism industry, as well as making it easier for islanders to access the mainland.

“The evaluation found that overall, by 2018, RET had increased passenger and car carryings by 11.6% and 20.6%, respectively, across the CHFS network and it also highlighted a number of routes that face capacity challenges during peak periods in the summer. This will help us work with stakeholders to manage the demand for these services and investment in the fleet, harbours and passenger facilities to address pressures.

“Whilst these figures come from the period before the Covid-19 pandemic, they underline the potential importance of the RET scheme in helping get our islands back up and running once we are through these challenging times.

“The roll out of RET fares was a key commitment from the Scottish Government, so I’m delighted to see the evaluation has reported that it is delivering real benefits for our island communities.”