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Transport / Space can be used as lever to help drive fixed links, Strang believes

Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

THE SAXAVORD Spaceport team is trying its “very level best” to help make fixed links in the North Isles happen, according to its CEO.

Speaking to Shetland News this week, Frank Strang reiterated his belief that a spaceport being built in Unst would accelerate the argument for tunnels in the North Isles – and potentially help to push the idea over the line.

It comes after Shetland Islands Council chief executive Maggie Sandison said earlier this year that the opportunity for talks with government over a fixed link to Unst is “far more advanced” now that the space project has planning permission.

Fixed links – such as tunnels – were a key part of most candidates’ manifestos in the 2022 council elections earlier this month.

They are viewed as a way of opening up opportunities to islands such as Yell, Unst, Whalsay and Bressay which are served by a fleet of aging ferries.

Frank Strang. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

But their high cost is the stumbling block.

Strang – whose spaceport project is in line to host the UK’s first vertical satellite launch – said on a personal level he believes fixed links are a necessity.

“What I’m picking up is that there’s a renewed interest and drive politically to try and make fixed links happen,” he said.

“What I believe with my SaxaVord Spaceport hat is on is that we can use space as a lever to help drive the fixed links.

“Because of the importance of the space economy to the UK, I think there’s a very strong argument to be had to persuade government to support access to the North Isles.

“I will put myself on the block and say I think that argument can be accelerated and won – and we will be doing our very level best to try and help make fixed links happen.”

As many councillors have done in the past, Strang pointed to the Faroe Islands – where tunnels are a part of everyday life – as a possible blueprint.

He added that the spaceport is now entering into a “more proactive partnership” with the state-owned Faroese Telecom, with Strang meeting its CEO in London only last week.

Strang said the burgeoning space industry is cutting edge, “so surely it’s not outwith the wit of man that we can use all that drive, expertise and experience to try and help facilitate access to the North Isles”.

The reliability of ferry links has been called into question as the vessels and infrastructure age; the Yell Sound service, for instance, has suffered a number of issues this year, with Covid absence and technical problems in the mix.

But Strang stated that no rocket launch provider signed up to use SaxaVord once operational has expressed concerns about hopping on ferries to get to Unst.

There are initial questions about logistics, Strang said, “but then we bring them and once they experience the ferries and they see the infrastructure moving…they are happy as clams”.

“Remember, oil and gas infrastructure has been coming to Shetland since the 70s,” he continued.

“There’s nothing that has moved on the ferry that is any bigger than anything that will be moved in the space industry – most of it comes in 40ft containers.

“But my job is to use that international business to help the council argue the case for fixed links.”

Strang reiterated that the company is looking to bring the Unst airfield back to use, “so our visitors can access the site by air”.