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Transport / Full steam ahead for new Fair Isle ferry funding bid

Local resident Eileen Thomson says ‘we desperately need a ferry suitable for life in the 21st century, to continue to attract visitors and prosper as a community’

Fair Isle.

SHETLAND Islands Council (SIC) is to press ahead with a bid for up to £25 million of new UK Government funding for a replacement Fair Isle ferry and associated harbour works.

Elected members gave the bid the go-ahead at a meeting of the full council on Wednesday.

It will be welcome news for residents to the remote Fair Isle, as well as visitors, although local Eileen Thomson said she will “save any celebration for if and when the funding is actually granted”.

She said she feels that there has been good support from councillors and the wider SIC for a new ferry.

Thomson added: “We desperately need a ferry suitable for life in the 21st century, to continue to attract visitors and prosper as a community.”

The funding bid to the UK Government’s Levelling Up fund will centre on 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.

The Good Shepherd IV.
The Good Shepherd IV.

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.

The Scottish Government was previously pinpointed as the source of possible funding for the project, but there has been little movement on that front as discussions around the cost of running Shetland’s inter-island ferries took priority.

Instead, council officers are now pursuing the £4.8 billion UK Government Levelling Up Fund, which was introduced to support the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The current ferry, with a capacity for 12 passengers, has not been able to carry any people during the pandemic due to regulations.

At Wednesday’s meeting there was unanimous support from councillors for the funding application.

The three Shetland South members spoke up for improving the transport links to the island, which sits between Shetland and Orkney and can also be accessed by plane.

Shetland South member Allison Duncan sought reassurance that the project would be on budget and on time, while Lerwick member Amanda Hawick questioned if staff resources would be in place.

Chief executive Maggie Sandison said “we will get it done”.

She added: “We are a small local authority, but the Fair Isle ferry has been a priority for us for a number of years.”

Lerwick member Stephen Leask asked if there was any worry over Fair Isle’s road network if more cars were travelling to the island.

But transport planning manager Michael Craigie said discussions would take place with the roads department and the community, although the key benefit of the ro-ro capability would be for freight.

Craigie meanwhile said a “Plan B” if the funding bid fails would be to continue talks with the Scottish Government.

During debate council leader Steven Coutts, who moved that the funding bid goes ahead, said: “This is much more than a ferry project – this is about island sustainability.”

Duncan added that the Scottish Government should be “ashamed” for not funding the ferry already. “That’s badly let down the Fair Isle community,” he said.

Chairman of the council’s environment and transport committee Ryan Thomson added that it is “irrelevant” to the people of Fair Isle in terms of where the prospective funding comes from.

Shetland Central member Ian Scott, though, claimed the Levelling Up fund was designed by the Conservative government to sweeten up Scotland.

Shetland South member George Smith said “let’s try and make sure that we get the outcomes the Fair Isle community folk deserve”, while colleague Robbie McGregor, who represents the SNP, said he “could not care less where the money comes from”.

Meanwhile Eileen Thomson said for Fair Isle, which has a population of around 50, a new boat is vital for improving accessibility and connectivity.

She said any new avenue for funding was a “boost”.

Thomson added that the trip from Grutness to Fair Isle – via the infamous Roost off Sumburgh is “not great for anyone but the fittest sailors”.

“The increasing costs of maintaining such an old boat are not insignificant and it will be better for all of us when we have something better,” she said.

“In Covid times the ferry crew have done a wonderful job in protecting us from unnecessary risk – cleaning, minimising any unnecessary contact – while making sure that the life-line service still runs and we get our fuel, food and other essentials, but there haven’t been passengers on the ferry for well over a year due to the fact the boat is not suitable for social distancing.

“A new ferry will be accessible for folk with disabilities, or simply those less able as currently you have to walk up a gangway and climb down a vertical ladder through a small hatch to access the passenger accommodation.

“I think it is credit to the boat crew over the 35 or so years that it still runs but that we desperately need a ferry suitable for life in the 21st century, to continue to attract visitors and prosper as a community.”

If the funding bid is successful, the council hopes for work to start as soon as possible to meet the condition of project spend commencing by March 2022.

It is anticipated that if all goes to plan, a new ferry could be in operation in 2024.