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Politics / Worth having conversation on fixed links, government’s Scotland minister says

Iain Stewart MP said however it is ‘too early’ to know the best solution for replacing Shetland’s ageing ferries

Iain Stewart MP outside the Town Hall on Friday. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

THE UK Government’s Scotland minster says he is “very happy” to look at the idea of fixed links for Shetland.

Iain Stewart also gave reassurances that funding through the government’s new Levelling Up scheme could come to areas like Shetland.

The Milton Keynes South MP was speaking on Friday following a two-day visit to Shetland.

On his agenda was meetings with the ORION and SaxaVord Spaceport teams, as well as Cooke Aquaculture and the local council and political representatives.

A key focus behind his meeting was to discuss the UK Government’s new Levelling Up agenda, which aims to spread opportunity across the whole country.

Despite that pledge, Shetland Islands Council’s £25 million bid to the government’s Levelling Up fund for a much-needed new Fair Isle ferry has already been turned down – although it is set to try again.

The Yell ferry Dagalien. Photo: SIC

But when pressed for reassurances that fresh government support could come to a place like Shetland, Conservative minister Stewart said there is a “whole range of different funds there and what we want to do is work with the council and other partners to help them realise that”.

He also pointed to the islands economic growth deal signed last year which will bring in £100 million of funding to Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles from the UK and Scottish governments.

Speaking after meeting Stewart at Lerwick Town Hall, Shetland Islands Council leader Steven Coutts said he was hopeful for further conversations around the idea of fixed links for the isles – particularly between Yell and Unst.

When asked for his take on the prospect of fixed links for Shetland in light of the Levelling Up funding on offer, Stewart said: “I’m conscious that number of the inter-island ferries are within five to ten years are going to be reaching their working lives.

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“I think it’s worth having the conversation. I’ve looked into the tunnel system they have in the Faroes.

“It’s too early to know whether, if you add up the cost of that against replacement ferries in the long term, what’s the best solution. But it’s something I’m very happy to look at.”

On Thursday Stewart made a trip to Unst to visit the SaxaVord Spaceport team, which aims to host the UK’s first vertical satellite launch later this year.

The project is already backed by £13.5 million of UK Government funding.

Stewart said there are “enormous opportunities” for the burgeoning space sector.

But during their meeting with the MP, council leaders stressed that there is opportunity across the board in Shetland worth investing in.

This includes the energy sector and plans to turn Shetland into a “green energy island”, while challenges in areas like digital connectivity were also highlighted.

The ORION project is seen a key way of Shetland going net zero.

Stewart felt the council has “huge ambitions” for the isles.

“It’s those ideas that through the different levelling up systems, and funding, we can work with them to help realise it,” he said.

“This is the start of the conversation, it’s not the end.

“With the Levelling Up we don’t have a fixed blueprint of how we want it to work, and it will work differently in different areas, both individually with councils like Shetland Islands Council, but also looking it at through this new islands forum, how shared interests can be discussed collectively with government, and whether that’s with Westminster government or Scottish Government in Edinburgh.”

With energy prices soaring, and Shetland set to become a net exporter of electricity once Viking Energy goes live in 2024, the council has raised with governments the idea of a local “tariff” to give residents cheaper power.

It comes as Shetland continues to have a high rate of fuel poverty – and with the cost of living continuing to rise, it has perhaps never been more important.

This is trickling down into increased food bank use, for instance, and Stewart’s government was slammed last year for ending a £20 per week uplift in universal credit benefit introduced during the pandemic.

“I’m sympathetic to looking at a change in there,” Stewart said when asked about the Shetland tariff idea.

“It’s not my personal decision – it doesn’t fall within my ministerial jurisdiction.

“But if you look at the clean energy, both from the onshore Viking wind farm and potentially the offshore wind, looking at whether that’s used for generating green hydrogen, the difference from the oil and gas – that is extracted from around here, goes off somewhere else and comes back as electricity.

“If electricity is generated here, green hydrogen is generated here, and then as a finished product sent off, then that changes the rules of the game if you like.

Under-secretary for Scotland Iain Stewart MP and chief executive of SaxaVord UK Spaceport Frank Strang discussing the planned space port at there Lamba Ness site on Thursday this week. Photo: SaxaVord UK Spaceport

“So I think it’s something worth exploring and I’ll certainly take it away to discuss with my ministerial colleagues as these come on stream. Whether it’s time to change and give a Shetland tariff – it’s worth exploring.”

Meanwhile Stewart’s visit came around one and a half years after councillors voted overwhelmingly to explore ways to achieve political and financial self-determination.

While there does not seem too much progress on that front – the Covid pandemic has likely got in the way – there still remains frustration among some over how Shetland is treated from Holyrood and Westminster.

It is fair to say the decision in 2020 was not exactly a vote of confidence in the UK and Scottish governments.

But Stewart said what he is sympathetic to is “what I call real devolution, and that is enabling local areas to make as many decisions as they can in their local area”.

“I don’t detect across Scotland and the UK an appetite for another independence referendum or anything like that,” he said.

“Most people are focused on after the pandemic, and addressing all the other challenges we face, that they want their governments to be getting on with delivering on what they need. for me the levelling up agenda – it’s not just the funding, it’s a change in approach as to how we help enable local areas to deliver the solutions themselves.

“I think that’s all to the good and it’s something I’m very keen to worth with the local leaders here to help realise. I’m very sympathetic to their ambitions.”

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