Ocean Kinetics - The Engineering Experts

Transport / Fixed links have to be community driven, MP stresses

Alistair Carmichael. Photo: Shetland News

NORTHERN Isles MP Alistair Carmichael has warned that the idea of fixed links “has to be community driven” and cannot be forced on island residents.

It comes amid growing discussion around the idea of tunnels to some of Shetland’s islands, such as Yell, Unst and Whalsay, to replace ferries.

Meanwhile the MP said council leadership are set to meet with the UK Government’s Scotland minister Iain Stewart to discuss the topic.

It comes after Stewart visited Shetland earlier this year to meet council representatives, with fixed links also on the agenda then.

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

But since then there have been changes at the top in the council chamber following May’s local government election.

Carmichael said it was important to keep building a consensus in the community for the idea of fixed links.

The MP is to hold a further series of engagement events with islanders alongside MSP Beatrice Wishart in August to keep driving momentum for the idea.

Speaking to Shetland News last week, Carmichael described Conservative MP Stewart – who recently visited Faroe and its much-heralded tunnels – as an “enthusiast”.

The Liberal Democrat confirmed that he has made direct representation himself to the UK Government over fixed links.

“And just this week I was in conversation with Iain Stewart, so I’m going to be taking either online or physically a delegation from the council in to speak to him,” he said.

“He’s an enthusiast. He’s just been to the Faroes and he’s seen for himself about the opportunities that can present with fixed links. So having somebody on the inside of government who’s got a position that will open doors […] is a real opportunity.”

While transport is a matter devolved to the Scottish Government, there is a feeling more interest is currently being shown in the idea of Shetland fixed links in London than Edinburgh.

Questions around how any potential fixed links are financed – as well as any feasibility studies or business cases – remain unanswered, although the UK Government’s Levelling Up agenda and its pledge to spread funding around the country has been mooted.

“Although my experience tells me that if you look like you’re ever going to get money out of Whitehall, then you’ll very quickly get money out of Edinburgh as well,” Carmichael added.

He also feels there is a “greater unity” amongst the new set of councillors on the topic, which has “come from the demonstration that there is a winder consensus in the community itself”.

“Councillors have all been out knocking doors, talking to their voters, in the last few months. So they’ve got that fresh in their mind,” the MP said.

He added that there is a perception from some on the UK mainland that the concept is just a “pipe dream”.

“Actually no, it’s not,” Carmichael said. “It’s actually much more pressing than that.

“I have always believed the the most difficult project to get off the ground, or under the ground, will be the first. Once you have built a fixed link, and you can prove the concept, then everything else will come much more easily after that.”

He reiterated the view that the development of a spaceport in Unst – something that is strategically important to the whole of the UK – places a tunnel between the island and Yell as a frontrunner.

“A fixed link from Unst to Yell would definitely be one that would add value for the rest of the UK. When you’re talking to treasury, that’s what you always have to demonstrate and illustrate.”

However, for such a life-changing development there needs to be a consensus among residents, the MP stressed.

“It has to be community driven,” Carmichael said. “If a fixed link becomes something that is done to an island community, then it’s never going to add any value.”

Shetland Islands Council leader Emma Macdonald said the local authority is “always happy to engage with anyone who is willing to listen around our need to address the challenges we face with our ferry fleet”.

She added that the SIC is currently focused on submitting a second bid to the UK Government’s Levelling Up scheme for a replacement Fair Isle ferry.