THE ISLAND of Whalsay will not get a new ferry and new terminals to improve its transport links with the Shetland mainland, councillors decided by a narrow margin on Wednesday.
Instead Shetland Islands Council has committed itself to a programme of spending £300 million over the next 20 years to build four tunnels to its main islands of Yell, Unst, Bressay and Whalsay, even though it does not have the money.
Councillors were advised by their chief financial officer Graham Johnston that the only affordable option to replace Whalsay’s deteriorating ferry service was a £26.2 million programme of improvements.
This would involve building a new ferry terminal at Whalsay’s North Voe, replacing the mainland terminals at Laxo and Vidlin, and ordering a new ferry that would provide greater capacity.
The 1,000 Whalsay residents have been split for the past six months over where a new ferry terminal should be built and whether a tunnel would be a preferable option.
Mr Johnston said that after exhaustive consultation and analysis he had concluded “clearly and unequivocally” that the £83.6 million cost of a tunnel to Whalsay was too much for the council to bear.
He added that there was “no realistic hope of substantial new sums for fixed links in Shetland in the foreseeable future” coming from Edinburgh or Brussels.
However Shetland North member Alistair Cooper persuaded his colleagues that a meeting last week with Scottish government civil servants had opened a chink of hope that external funding would be available.
He said that the harsh financial climate facing Shetland in the future meant that ferry services would have to be cut in the future. “Some may say I am scaremongering, but I am being honest,” he insisted.
“I believe communities in Shetland need a council that’s willing to go to the front and be creative in how it approaches what is going to be a very serious situation going forward.”
His proposal to set up a working group and prepare a report by the end of this year to lay out a timescale for building four tunnels in Shetland and start talks with external funders early next year won by 11 votes to 10.
Councillor Laura Baisley opposed the move, saying that Whalsay was being “strangled” by the lack of capacity on the ferry route.
Vice convener Josie Simpson, who lives on Whalsay, said that he feared that the island would become depopulated by further delay.
“What I am worried about is that the longer this drags on I think that Whalsay is losing out. There is many, many a time I have to come out at 7am to get to a 10am meeting. It’s no matter to me, I am used to staying up all night,” he said.
“But a young girl starting out to work, it’s enough to put her off. She’ll say I have had enough of this I am going to move out. That’s what’s happening.”
Councillor Frank Robertson, a former council director of civil works, said Whalsay would probably have to wait between 20 or 30 years before it would see a tunnel built even if the funding could be found.
However councillor Cooper said he thought they were speaking about seven to 10 years and the government would support their plans.
The council did agree to ring fence the existing £17.5 million set aside for the Whalsay transport link and commissioned a report into the state of the existing ferry infrastructure and how much it would cost to maintain into the future.