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Transport / Making case for fixed links a complex process which needs external expertise, councillors told

Tunnels like this one in Faroe are seen by some as the way forward. Photo: UK Government

OUTSIDE expertise will need to be drafted in before business cases on fixed links can be made – that was the message given to councillors this week.

While there is a desire to see movement on tunnels, the council is still progressing with some ferry replacement projects.

As previously reported, a second bid to the UK Government’s Levelling Up fund will be submitted for a new Fair Isle ferry as well as harbour works on the island and Grutness in the South Mainland.

A business case for the Whalsay ferry route will also be presented to councillors in September.

Speaking at a meeting of the council’s environment and transport committee on Tuesday development director Neil Grant said when it came to fixed links to islands like Unst, Yell, Whalsay and Bressay there needed to be a focus on the “bigger picture”.

He explained that making the case for funding for fixed links as replacements for ferry services would be a complex process.

“I think the piece of work that we need to do would be to paint that bigger picture and describe exactly why it is justified and make that case to government,” he said.

Grant added that the government would be looking to see specific methodologies used, for instance.

“I think to date resourcing has been an issue,” he continued.

“I think we would need to recognise going forward that the level of expert resource, the level of bought in resource, would be quite significant for pulling this sort of modelling together.”

Grant also suggested holding a seminar with councillors and those with expertise in the field. “In terms of investment it’s huge and in terms of impact it’s huge, and there’s so many parts to it and there’s so many options.”

Meanwhile at Wednesday’s full council meeting Lerwick member John Fraser said repeatedly asking funding bodies for fixed links cash is unlikely to bear fruit.

He warned the chasing this “pot of gold” without robust and compelling business cases would be “akin to chasing rainbows”.

Meanwhile a funding bid to the Scottish Government for running the council’s inter-island ferries for the financial year 2023/24 will be submitted soon, and transport boss Michael Craigie said he anticipates getting the full request for a second year a row.

Last year the council received £10.8 million to fully cover the cost of running ferries.

However the latest request will take into account the significantly increased price of fuel, and a rise in maintenance costs.

It is understood that fuel prices are creating a sharp rise in the cost of running Shetland’s diesel-powered ferries.

Elected members heard this week that an extra eight per cent has been budgeted this year for the council’s fuel and energy costs, but this will continue to be monitored closely.

Fuel pumps in Lerwick on Thursday were showing the price of unleaded petrol as nearly £2 a litre.

Meanwhile Grant said the absence of inter-island ferries from a second strategic transport projects review showed the Scottish Government continues to view the service as a council responsibility.

This was backed up by chief executive Maggie Sandison at Wednesday’s full council meeting when asked by Labour member Tom Morton about the progress of the government’s proposed island connectivity plan.

The plan will look at aviation, ferries and fixed links, and connecting and onward travel.

It is replacing the government’s existing ferries plan, which only references the NorthLink ferry service to and from Shetland. It says inter-island services in Shetland and Orkney are the responsibility of the councils.

“We have had early notification that Shetland is being excluded [from the islands connectivity plan], because ‘our ferries are our ferries’,” Sandison said.

“It’s actually looking at the moment as though the islands connectivity plan will exclude a number of islands who are not having their services delivered by CalMac.

“We are still engaging with the Scottish Government about how an islands connectivity plan which excludes islands can be an islands connectivity plan.”