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Transport / SIC lines up £25m funding bid for Fair Isle ferry improvements

The Good Shepherd IV.
The Good Shepherd IV.

SHETLAND Islands Council is lining up a bid worth up to £25 million for a new Fair Isle ferry and harbour improvements as it looks to take advantage of a new UK Government fund.

The proposal includes replacing the ageing Good Shepherd IV with a bespoke ro-ro vessel, as well as harbour works in both Fair Isle and at Grutness in the south mainland.

Members of Shetland’s transport partnership ZetTrans will discuss the matter at a meeting on Monday.

Replacing the Good Shepherd, which is over 30 years old and does not meet current accessibility standards, has been rumbling on for years.

The new vessel, which would be larger and faster than the current one and continue to have a 12 passenger capacity, is estimated at £4.8 million and harbour infrastructure could cost just over £20 million.

The latter would see linkspans installed at North Haven in Fair Isle and at Grutness, where the ferry usually stops off. The project would also include quay extensions at both.

It is felt that the project would provide a significant boost to the community of Fair Isle, which at the moment has a population of around 48.

Whilst the components of the outline business case for the project were completed back in 2019, discussions with the Scottish Government did not bear fruit – with the now-resolved issue of revenue funding for operating ferries taking priority.

Talks are now set to resume following the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, and a full outline business case has been completed.

A new £4.8 billion UK Government ‘Levelling Up’ fund has been pinpointed as a possible way of getting the works paid for.

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”.

Members of ZetTrans will be asked on Monday to approve using the fully completed outline business case in a funding application. If the bid is successful, the council would get to work as soon as possible.

The deadline for the first round of funding is 18 June, and this stage happens to have a transport theme.

The airport terminal at Fair Isle. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

The government says the new fund is “especially intended to support investment in places where it can make the biggest difference to everyday life, including ex-industrial areas, deprived towns and coastal communities”.

If the bid was unsuccessful, the council would then revert back to the Scottish Government in its quest for funding.

Two thirds of people responding to a Fair Isle residents survey in 2019 said they felt aspects of the current ferry service prevents more frequent travel to the Shetland mainland.

The business case describes sailings as “slow, uncomfortable, and weather restricted”.

The same number of respondents felt that transport connections were not sufficient for tourism.

Consultants who worked on the business case said that a faster vessel with a modern hull form would offer reduced crossing times, while having a ro-ro ferry – and not the crane-based cargo loading system at present – would cut back on turnaround times.

There is a hope that these combined would allow the boat to be operated within a shorter weather window, potentially allowing more sailings to be included in the timetable.

At present it takes around two and a half hours to travel by sea to Fair Isle.

In the summer there are trips three times a week to and from Grutness, and once a fortnight to Lerwick. But in the winter there is only one sailing per week.

People can also fly to Fair Isle from Tingwall.

A new ro-ro vessel will also be able to carry heavier loads, including plant, reducing the cost and inconvenience of chartering vessels for these type of jobs.

The business case hopes for the new vessel entering service in 2024.