A FORMAL vote could be held in Whalsay to determine the public demand for a fixed link connecting the island to the Shetland mainland.
The result of the ballot, which has been proposed by Whalsay Community Council, would be non-binding.
The idea of a tunnel to Whalsay has been mooted for years and the issue reared its head again in 2017 after the community council urged Shetland Islands Council (SIC) to reconsider an offer from a Norwegian company to build and invest in an estimated £76 million tunnel project.
The community council has now submitted a formal request to the SIC to hold a vote.
It has gone through North Isles councillors Duncan Simpson, Ryan Thomson and Alec Priest, who support the idea of the islands deciding on their own transport future.
The news comes not long after the Scottish Government agreed to give the SIC an extra £5 million in 2018/19 to run its inter-island ferry services – £2.5 million less than requested – but the capital costs of replacing the ageing ferry fleet over time has not yet been accounted for.
Whalsay Community Council chairman David Hughson said the proposed ballot would “finally get a clear steer from the isle [about] what they want”.
All of the members of the community council are in favour of fixed links, he said, but a vote would allow the rest of the community to have their say.
Hughson described ferries as the “future for the near term”, but he expressed concern over the level of funding from the Scottish Government in the future to run the service in addition to capital costs.
“It’ll end up being potential cuts to the service, and the service at the moment hardly meets the needs of the isle,” he suggested.
The community council chairman said capacity and timetable issues have left the ferry service to Whalsay near breaking point.
“Saturdays and Sundays with the single vessel on, there’s no enough capacity to meet the demand. It’s not just a case of turning up and hope for the best, there’s a lot of days it just can’t happen.”
Councillor Simpson, who is from Whalsay, said that while everyone may not be in favour of a vote being held, it is the “fairest way” to gauge the public’s views.
“I would also like to emphasise that this process will not delay or hinder the ongoing fight for fair funding from Holyrood for both revenue and capital replacement costs of our ferries,” he said.
“I am aware that this process may stir up controversy and existing divisions within the community. Some of you may even think the whole thing is a bad idea and you are entitled to that opinion.
“However, I believe it would be unfair for the three of us to push for any option for the island going forward without gauging the wishes of the community first. We think this is the fairest way to do that.”
There is said to be principal support in the council for fixed links, but the issue of cost has prevented any movement.
Maintenance costs for the council would reduce considerably while allowing greater access to the isles for people and businesses.
A five-year asset plan due to be discussed at Wednesday’s full council meeting says that ferry life extension works across the whole network between 2018 and 2023 would cost £4.65 million.
But it is thought that the cost of replacing the SIC’s ageing ferry fleet and upgrading terminals could reach as much as over £100 million by 2030.
In 2016 Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf agreed to look into integrating fixed links into national policy – something which was described as a “huge step forward” for Shetland’s transport planning.
Councillor Thomson, who is also chairman of the council’s environment and transport committee, said the views of the public are vital in the process.
“The non-binding, advisory poll, if agreed by the full council, will be used by the North Isles councillors, to determine the preferred wishes for future transport links for Whalsay residents,” he said.
“Whatever the result, the wishes of each island must be taken on board when determining how to progress with such an important decision.”
The idea of a fixed link to Whalsay was also raised a few years ago following interest from Norwegian company Nergård AS in building a new fish processing plant on the island.
Its plans would have required Symbister harbour in Whalsay to undergo a major extension which the SIC estimated could cost between £20-40 million, leading to calls for a tunnel as a more viable longer-term option.
In 2012 a salmon processing plant closed its doors in Whalsay and Hughson said the “restricted” transport links was one of the reasons why it shut.
A tunnel linking Whalsay to the Shetland mainland was explored by the SIC nearly a decade ago, but it was deemed too expensive.