PRIME Minister David Cameron says he is hopeful that the UK and Scottish governments will agree a deal to lay an interconnector cable hooking Shetland up to the National Grid.
He was speaking during a brief press conference with local media outlets in the Stewart Building in Lerwick on Wednesday morning, part of a surprise 24-hour visit which makes him the first UK leader to visit the islands since 1980.
Cameron talked up yesterday’s announcement of a deal to spread the subsidy cost of providing electricity to Shetland across the whole of Britain rather than just the north of Scotland.
He said it would put the subsidy on a more sustainable footing and ensure prices are kept at 75 per cent less than they would otherwise be. Lerwick Power Station, built in 1954, is due to be replaced with a new station in 2017.
“It is… a decision that has to be made because the Shetland power station is coming to the end of its life and needs to be refurbished and refabricated, and so we have to make a decision about how that is paid for,” Cameron told reporters.
“I think it’s right to use the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom to pay for it… and it just emphasises that there are 60 million people standing behind the Shetlands in the United Kingdom.”
However a planned visit to Total’s under-construction Shetland Gas Plant was cancelled, with the Prime Minister instead meeting representatives of the French energy giant in Lerwick on Wednesday morning.
Cameron’s visit comes less than two months ahead of the referendum on Scottish independence, and is perhaps recognition of the crucial role Shetland plays in the UK energy industry.
The controversial 103-turbine Viking Energy windfarm will only be built if an interconnector cable to the mainland is laid, and talks on how to fund that are continuing between Westminster and Holyrood.
“Obviously there are two advantages,” Cameron said. “One is to connect Shetland with the mainland in terms of electricity, but also, crucially, if some of these big offshore infrastructure wind projects can go ahead it’s essential that they can be harnessed to the National Grid.
“The two governments are talking about it. I hope we can get a successful outcome – I mean, if you look across the whole United Kingdom, we’ve actually got the biggest offshore wind market anywhere in the world, so we’ve proven that this industry can succeed under the terms that we’ve set up, and obviously there are big opportunities here [in Shetland].”
But Scotland’s energy minister Fergus Ewing said there was a “glaring omission” in the Prime Minister’s announcement.
“The Shetland Islands will be enabled to play their full part in Scotland’s clean energy revolution only when they are connected to the mainland electricity grid,” Ewing said.
“Shetland is the only community of its size in the entire British Isles which lacks such a connection. It is deeply disappointing the Prime Minister did not take this opportunity to rectify this anomaly,” Ewing said.
After the SNP published a prospectus promising more powers for Scotland’s islands, the UK coalition is expected to deliver its response to the Our Islands Our Future campaign in the coming weeks.
Cameron said that his party believed in further devolution to Holyrood if Scotland votes no to independence, and in devolution to the regions beyond Edinburgh.
“We think there are opportunities for further devolution and we are very interested in the document that has been produced, Our Islands Our Future,” he said, “and we’re discussing that with all the parties involved and hope to be able to make some announcements in the coming weeks.”
Cameron said that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition was committed to devolving powers throughout the UK in areas such as planning and housing.
Referring to the “city deal” offered to help generate growth in Glasgow, he added there was “no reason why we can’t look at those sort of arrangements with other parts of Scotland including the Shetlands”.
The Prime Minister said the entrepreneurialism and industry evident in the islands “absolutely exemplifies what I call the big society”.
“I was very struck last night talking to one of the cancer charities – pointing out that the biggest, proportionally, race for life anywhere in the United Kingdom is here in Shetland,” he said.
Cameron, who was due to fly south to Glasgow at around lunchtime on Wednesday for the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, stayed overnight at Scalloway Hotel.
He paid tribute to the islands’ “raw beauty and serenity” and said his wife had been “very jealous” that he started the day with a jog and then a “brief” swim in the sea at Mael beach in Burra.