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Council / SIC chief not too concerned isles aren’t ‘priority area’ in new government fund

SHETLAND Islands Council chief executive Maggie Sandison says a new UK Government fund not listing the Highlands and Islands as a ‘priority area’ does not mean a recent bid for a new Fair Isle ferry is likely to fail.

SIC chief executive Maggie Sandison. Photo: Shetland News

Earlier this month the council submitted a bid worth up to £25 million to the new £4.8 billion Levelling Up fund for a replacement ferry and associated harbour works.

It comes as the Scottish Islands Federation (SIF) expressed concern that the Highlands and Islands were “ignored” in the list of priority areas for the fund.

This is despite chancellor Rishi Sunak saying the infrastructure fund is intended to support investment in “coastal communities”, as well as ex-industrial areas and deprived towns.

Things taken into account to determine the priority include consideration of an area’s need for economic recovery, regeneration and improved connectivity.

“Shetland is not one of the priority areas, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the bid wouldn’t go ahead,” Sandison said.

“There will be other rounds of similar funds that we’ll be able to go for, so it’s about getting that first bid in and showing that we could deliver.”

Councillors were told recently that if the Fair Isle bid is a success, then project spend must get under way by March 2022.

Sandison said the council expects to hear the results of the bid in late summer or early autumn, and she questioned if other large projects are in an advanced position like the Fair Isle bid.

A full business case for the Fair Isle ferry and harbour works has already been approved by councillors.

“I suppose the real challenge for the Levelling Up fund is that they’ve put a call out for projects and given a very short period – first of all for the bid itself, but also for the delivery of the project,” she said.

“So really the question is: how many other large scale projects are there that could be turned around in that period of time?”

SIF chair Camille Dressler, meanwhile, said the “methods used to categorise priority areas for the Levelling up Fund are badly flawed”.

“The absence of Highland, Orkney and Shetland in the list of priority areas is baffling given the economic and social fragility of these places.

“The irony is that the Highlands & Islands give so much back to the rest of the UK.”

Dressler also said the group had concerns about “local authorities not engaging with community groups about project selection”.

The SIF said the Levelling Up fund is a pilot project in place to inform the design of the main UK shared prosperity fund, which itself is meant to replace EU structural funds.

While the fund is worth £4.8 billion until 2024/25, only “at least £800 million” of that amount will be invested in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.