STORMONT bosses have rejected local politicians’ pleas to call off Strangford Ferry price hikes.

Last month, Ards and North Down Council took officials in the Department for infrastructure (DfI) to task over plans to jack up the cost of using the fault-prone ferry.

The price of the ferry hasn’t gone up in 15 years, and the DfI now insists hikes of around 30% are needed; peninsula councillors branded such a huge increase unacceptable, and convinced the council to write to officials objecting to the move.

The DfI’s response was presented to the council’s Corporate Services Committee last week – and they’re going ahead with the price rises come what may.

According to DfI permanent secretary Denis McMahon, without the hikes officials would likely have to cut back on ferry services.

“An uplift is now needed to address current budgetary pressures and to reflect the increased running costs of the ferry service since November 2009,” he stated.

“Were the proposed fare increase not to be introduced, the department would need to make significant savings from the current ferry operation, which is likely to result in a reduced service for customers.”

Mr McMahon reinforced that current percentages offered as discounts for ferry smartcard holders and children’s fares will stay in place, something he said is being done ‘to assist with the proposed fare uplift’.

Councillors had said that although any price rises would be unpopular, increasing them in line with inflation would at least be understandable.

But Mr McMahon insisted that a boost of around 4% wouldn’t come close to tackling issues identified by the DfI, and the 30% hike is the only option.

He stated: “I note the objections to the proposed percentage increases, which the council believes will negatively impact tourism, education and the local businesses who rely upon the service.

“The Department for Infrastructure remains committed to enabling educational, social, and business links between the Ards Peninsula and South Down, through the delivery of a sustainable Strangford Ferry service.”

The permanent secretary’s response was noted without any further debate at last week’s Corporate Committee meeting.