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Council / Fixed links on the mind of new North Isles councillor

North Isles councillor Robert Thomson. Photo: Shetland News

NEW North Isles councillor Robert Thomson believes making progress on fixed links in the ward is “absolutely essential”.

Speaking after a clear victory in a by-election count on Friday, the former development worker said a clear majority of the community was also behind the idea of replacing ferries with tunnels.

Independent candidate Thomson, from Yell, scooped nearly 700 votes in the count – with second placed Sonia Robertson securing 106.

This is the highest vote share of any candidate in the history of the North Isles ward – and a number which took Thomson by surprise.

Fixed links, such as tunnels, for the islands of Yell and Unst was a hot topic in May’s local government election.

And the issue – as well as transport in a wider sense – was also on the mind of all five candidates in the by-election, which was held to fill one seat left vacant in the uncontested ward.

Thomson said after Friday’s declaration that most people he spoke to during the campaign were in favour of replacing ferries with fixed links.

“There were a few that had reservations…but they were vastly outnumbered,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s an option. What I look at is Burra, Trondra and Muckle Roe. They got their bridges and look at the change brought to those communities.

“Yes, you can look to Faroe and Norway, but we’ve got examples here in Shetland.”

Thomson also said he felt any charges for using tunnels – should they be built in the years ahead – should be kept to a minimum.

How any tunnels would be financed is often seen as the greatest hurdle, with fixed links naturally coming with a significant capital price tag.

“Ideally I’d like to see tunnels here to be free, but we might have to pay a little bit to begin with,” Thomson said. “But it certainly has to be at or below the current ferry rate.”

The newly elected councillor also has experience in transport – his first job after school was on the local ferries, and he was a qualified deck officer.

The ferries, both on Yell Sound and Bluemull Sound, have suffered significant disruption in recent months – with illness combining with a shortage of back-up staff.

“I would like to see the current problems with managing the crew resolved, and I don’t think it takes an awful lot,” Thomson said.

“There just has to be a bit of speaking, and there obviously has to be some changes, but I think there’s not been enough communication.”

He also felt he has a “clear mandate” from the North Isles community – which covers Yell, Unst, Fetlar, Whalsay and Skerries – after the significant victory.

The new councillor is well known for his former role as a development worker for Fetlar, but he said life in the council chamber will be somewhat different.

“When I started the project [in Fetlar] my budget was zero, and I had to find virtually everything, whereas with the council you do have little bit of money to play with, which makes things a lot easier,” he said.

“But these bigger projects – it’s a whole different level.”

Coming in third place in the by-election was former councillor Gary Cleaver (100), with Marie Williamson (92) following in fourth. Picking up the least votes was Stewart Douglas (13), who was the only candidate not present at the count.

All five candidates in the by-election stood as  independents.

The turnout was 46.2 per cent, with a total of 991 votes cast. The number of first preference votes needed for election at the first stage was 496.

Already representing the North Isles are Duncan Anderson and Ryan Thomson, who are also both independents.