THE IDEA of building tunnels from the Shetland mainland to the islands has taken a "huge step forward" after Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf agreed to look into integrating fixed links into national policy.
SIC transport manager Michael Craigie said the commitment, which was given at the latest meeting of the Islands Transport Forum in Edinburgh on Thursday, was a "direct consequence" of recent public consultation into the inter-island ferry service in Shetland which showed a demand for fixed links.
Speaking after a ZetTrans meeting in Lerwick on Friday, Craigie said that merging fixed links into national policy moves the concept of building tunnels or bridges in Shetland to the "next level".
An annual report presented at the meeting said the island communities of Bressay, Yell, Unst and Whalsay believe fixed links are "key to a more robust and sustainable future".
This is because of "serious concerns" over the future of ferry services in an era of reduced public sector funding, as well as the financial cost of using the service.
It is now proposed that fixed links could be added into Scotland's National Transport Strategy, which is currently being reviewed, or developed through the establishment of a focused working group.
"We have to get this into a policy area, otherwise fixed links are only ever about individual transport studies, or an option against a ferry service or air service," Craigie said.
"It's always been an option, rather than something that is part of a policy position."
While expensive to build, fixed links in Shetland would strip away the cost of running inter-island ferries and the price of replacing ageing vessels.
In 1997, Shetland Islands Council embarked on plans to build a £23 million bridge between Lerwick and Bressay, but the ill-fated project fell through after a costly legal wrangle with Lerwick Port Authority.
Developing tunnels to outlying islands could also provide a huge boon for the aquaculture industry, with transport routes easier to navigate, while it would also increase social opportunities in the isles.
The island community of Whalsay has regularly spoken in favour of a fixed link, with its community council chairman David Hughson saying in April that building a tunnel would have been a logical step if plans for a new fish processing plant had come to fruition.
Transport body ZetTrans will now engage with the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland to help progress national policy on fixed links, but it is unclear exactly how things will be taken forward.
It is believed that no fixed links could be built in Shetland without support from the government.
"Humza Yousaf has been supportive of bringing it onto the agenda and doing what needs to be done to develop policy around this," Craigie said.
ZetTrans chairman Michael Stout added that the new transport minister understands "this is something that needs big picture thinking applied to it."
"Over the years fixed links have almost been done on an ad-hoc basis," he said.
"I think the point here is that in order to take things to the next level then it needs to sit within a national and policy framework.
"There's been a lot of misconceptions and complications through the whole process, but where we're at right now is putting together a demonstrable and evidence based case around this big picture thinking."
Craigie said during Friday's ZetTrans meeting that inspiration could be taken from countries in Europe and Scandinavia which have successfully implemented fixed links.
However, Billy Fox stressed that while fixed links are something "we will naturally evolve to, we need to emphasise that this is for the very long term".
The councillor said it could be a matter of "40 or 50 years" before Shetland sees tunnels, although Davie Sandison added it would be beneficial to have a rough timeframe to work to.
Shetland News contacted the Scottish Government for response but did not receive a response in time for publication.