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Councillors content with Toft Pier revamp plan

Access to the dilapidated Toft pier was first restricted in 2015 before it was closed off in 2016. Photo courtesy of SIC.

PLANS to rebuild and extend the dilapidated Toft Pier for use by the isles’ thriving seafood industry have passed their first hurdle after winning the approval of Shetland Islands Council’s development committee.

Monday afternoon’s meeting at Lerwick Town Hall saw members give a thumbs-up to an outline business case for a £2.4 million revamp – with the local authority hoping external funding will cover half the cost.

An at times ill-tempered dispute broke out between the council and those in the shellfish industry in late 2016 after the pier was deemed unsafe and closed off. Currently a pontoon alongside the pier allows for limited use.

However relations seem to have improved since, with councillors detecting an acceptance within the industry that landing dues will have to be paid to use the council’s infrastructure even in remote areas.

A report from John Smith of the SIC’s ports and harbours department said it would be an important piece of infrastructure that would support a range of marine industries.

Councillors have been considering the pier’s future for over three years.

The pier was built in 1951 for the Yell ferry service and then rebuilt 20 years later. When a new ferry terminal at Toft was built in 2000, the ferry service stopped using the old pier which continued to be used regularly by shellfish boats and “occasional other ad-hoc users”.

Theo Smith said the pier at Walls was an example of how important council infrastructure could be to the seafood industry's ability to thrive.

But, while some basic repair works have been carried out, there has been “no major maintenance in the last 30 years”. After initially restricting access, the council decided to close it to all users in December last year as there are holes in the deck.

The temporary pontoon “does not provide very straightforward loading or unloading to or from vehicles and is at best a stop-gap”.

Smith said the council is currently spending £50,000 a year and would still be liable for the cost of demolition if it opted against an upgrade.

His report said rebuilding and extending offers “the potential for a range of commercial uses which could generate sufficient income to justify the cost of investment for the council when wider economic benefits [are] taken into consideration”.

It also talked of the possibility of securing European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) funding – though one councillor questioned whether that would be possible post-Brexit.

The council’s capital contribution would be financed by borrowing, with those costs funded through the fees and charging structure within the ports and harbour department.

Committee chairman Alastair Cooper gave his backing to the report, which at this stage is calling for the business case to be considered further for possible inclusion in the SIC’s asset investment plan.

“We have a pier which the industry wants to use, which is not available to them,” he said. “Peerie boats can’t work at some of the piers because of the size and the height of them.”

He added he knew of at least one fishing crew that would consider getting a new boat as a direct result of a Toft Pier upgrade, and he felt the “biggest possibility” was salmon industry use of the new facility.

West Side councillor Theo Smith said members had received a briefing from the Shetland Fishermen’s Association (SFA) last week and heard there were “over 80 boats under 10 metres that’s fishing around Shetland”.

“Quite a lot of those are in the North Mainland, and I have said right from the start that the way the council can support the local economy is to build infrastructure,” he said.

Smith cited the example of Walls in his own constituency, where a new pier was built and “to be quite honest it’s now nearly too small”.

South Mainland councillor Allison Duncan had a different perspective, saying he would “honestly question if this new pier is necessary”.

“In the North Isles there is, to me, adequate good quality piers and given the fact this is going to cost £2.4 million, and there’s maybe no guarantee with the Brexit carry-on that we can get grant funding of £1.2 million from Europe, I think this is maybe taking it a step too far.”

South Mainland member Allison Duncan was the only councillor to question the wisdom of upgrading the pier, but he stopped short of formally moving against the plans.

Cooper responded by saying: “Well, that’s an opinion, yes.”

Central Ward member Stephen Leask also referred to the SFA meeting, saying it highlighted the clear need for small piers.

“It’s not only small fishing boats but it’s also all facets of aquaculture,” he said. “The salmon industry will be able to use Toft Pier as well as probably the mussel farms too.

“We have to look at streams of funding, and not just think this is going to come out of the public purse, but we’re going to see a proper financial stream.”

North Mainland councillor Andrea Manson said she was “totally convinced there will be enormous use”.

She said industry users were “already speaking about how good it’d be if there was ice there, fuel there, having shore power there”. New technology meant there was “nothing to stop ensuring every single penny” in dues owed is collected by the council.

“Fishermen have totally got their heads around the fact that they’re going to have to pay – they realise the council can’t just subsidise everything forevermore,” Manson said, adding in response to Duncan’s remarks on Brexit that leaving the EU “might make it even better with more landings for boats in the area”.

Lerwick South councillor Peter Campbell asked whether a water depth of six metres on the pier’s dogleg would be sufficient given the “ever-increasing size of workboats, fishing boats and related craft”.

Smith responded that it was one of the issues a more detailed business case would need to address to maximise the pier’s longevity.

North Isles member Alec Priest said he was “happy to see council encouragement for our seafood industry”. His only question was how the issue of traffic would be managed given the pier would be right next to ferry traffic waiting to travel to Yell and Unst.

Smith said it was expected that five or six arctic lorries would require access and it would be a case of “making sure the timing didn’t interfere with ferry traffic going in and out”, but he felt the volume of traffic involved was manageable.

The report will now go before Wednesday’s harbour board meeting.