A NEW £4.8 billion UK Government scheme designed to improve everyday life across the country is being explored as a potential funding avenue for a long-awaited replacement Fair Isle ferry.
Shetland Islands Council chief executive Maggie Sandison said officers are looking into whether the recently announced Levelling Up scheme, which has improved transport connectivity among its aims, could offer funding for the project.
The UK government said it is “committed to levelling up across the whole of the United Kingdom to ensure that no community is left behind, particularly as we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic”.
A replacement for the ageing Fair Isle ferry and improvements to the island’s harbour has been on the cards for a number of years and a business case has been developed by the council, which operates the service.
There has been frustration, however, over the lack of progress from the Scottish Government in terms of funding the project.
Sandison confirmed to a meeting of the council’s policy and resources committee on Tuesday that no agreement is in place for capital funding for new Fair Isle or Whalsay ferries.
Until a funding mechanism is in place, the projects cannot move forward, she explained.
She said the Fair Isle project – which is more advanced than the Whalsay case – has been an “ongoing discussion for many years, and we will continue to be active in the conversation”.
The discussion in the council chamber also stoked debate on the idea of fixed links for some of Shetland’s islands – a long-held ideal for many.
Alastair Cooper pressed for the need to explore fixed links, but depute leader Emma Macdonald called for the immediate focus to be on securing new ferries on the routes which need investment.
“Fixed links are not quick solutions,” she said.
Lerwick member Stephen Leask suggested that fixed links could be resourced from within the council, which would offer “greater value”, while Shetland South representative George Smith believed that some of the ferries would need to be replaced in the interim before any fixed links become a reality.
Chairman of the council’s transport committee Ryan Thomson, meanwhile, called for the council’s ferry replacement programme to be renamed an islands connectivity plan to include consideration of fixed links.
Sandison said it was encouraging that the Scottish Government had also renamed its ferry plan to an islands connectivity plan as it could reflect a growing acceptance of the demand for fixed links.
Thomson also said he was alarmed to see a business case for the Bluemull Sound service mentioned in a report presented to members on the ferry replacement programme.
This was because the North Isles member said he believed the islands which could potentially have fixed links – such as Unst and Yell – should not have ferry replacements lined up.
The ferry replacement programme estimates that £135.9 million will be required over the next 12 years.
Shetland south member Allison Duncan said he was “extremely disappointed that there’s going to be a significant delay” in the Fair Isle and Whalsay projects due to the lack of agreement on the funding.
Sandison did hint at the possibility of a flexible approach being explored to funding the Fair Isle project, such as the council covering the costs of harbour improvements and other sources paying for the ferry.
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