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Council / Islands deal not the place for fixed links or digital connectivity funding, SIC leader says

Council leader Steven Coutts signing the islands growth deal in 2021. Photo: SIC

FIXED links and digital connectivity were not included in the £100 million islands deal because the UK and Scottish governments already fund these areas, according to council leader Steven Coutts.

The growth deal was inked by leaders of the Shetland, Orkney and Western Isles councils on Wednesday morning, bringing millions of investment into the islands over ten years and the potential for substantial job creation.

Among the local projects in line to receive significant funding include an ultra deep water decommissioning port at Dales Voe, which has been allocated up to £9 million, and the redevelopment of the old Anderson High School site (up to £9.1 million).

There is also money going into the proposed clean energy project (up to £5 million), a college campus redevelopment (up to £2 million), a new aquaculture scheme (£4.4 million) and the emerging space sector in Shetland (up to £1 million).

There will also be projects on creative islands wellbeing and education and skills which will cover all three island groups.

Two issues, however, which have long been a bugbear of many in Shetland – transport and digital connectivity – do not feature.

But Coutts said that the islands deal – which follows on from city and regional deals across the UK – is designed to bring growth in areas which the government does not fund as a matter of course.

“These projects are ones that were agreed in conversation with the respective Scottish and UK governments,” he said.

“When it comes to transport provision and digital connectivity, there is other avenues where that funding could be obtained from.”

He referenced the Scottish Government’s R100 programme as a way digital connectivity is funded.

“The deal is around additionally over and above what the governments might fund in other areas.”

Coutts added that it is not to say that “we won’t be discussing with respective governments a whole range of projects going forward”.

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However, he said the islands deal projects focused on key areas of net zero, opportunities around tourism, food and drink and skills and employment.

It is hoped that the islands deal as a whole will release a total of £235 million in investment from industry partners, creating as many as 1,300 jobs across all three island communities.

When asked what the deal would bring to the everyday person in Shetland, Coutts said job creation was a key component. “This is all about addressing the depopulation, the challenge of retaining and growing the working age population in Shetland.”

The chairman of the council’s environment and transport committee Ryan Thomson, meanwhile, is due to write to the Scottish Government in a bid to get fixed links up the political agenda.

Coutts reiterated that the council does not have the resources or the borrowing ability to pay for fixed links to the likes of Whalsay or the North Isles.

He said a business case would need to show financial and societal value. “Fixed links would have to stack up in that regard,” Coutts said.

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