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Transport / ‘Time is right’ to consider fixed links, HIE chief says

Stuart Black also said the development agency will explore possible ‘funding mechanisms’ for fixed links

The Fivla at Gutcher ferry terminal in Yell. Photo: Shetland News

THE CHIEF executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has spoken up in favour of fixed links in Shetland – and said the organisation will be looking to see what “innovative funding mechanisms” might be available to deliver them.

It comes after Stuart Black visited Shetland recently, including Yell and Unst – two islands which are seen as frontrunners for fixed links.

Meanwhile a recent letter sent by a Transport Scotland official to the vice-chair of Whalsay Community Council highlights that the Scottish Government does not view Shetland’s “inter-island fixed links” as being within its remit.

Instead, the official said it was “solely a matter for Shetland Islands Council”.

The local authority operates the inter-island ferries which fixed links could replace, although the Scottish Government currently funds the deficit in running the service.

The idea of fixed links replacing ferries is nothing new – think back to the proposed Bressay bridge – but as the council’s vessels age there is a growing clamour for tunnels in particular to islands like Yell and Unst.

There is also a view that the spaceport planned for Unst, which is of national interest, has strengthened the case for fixed links in the North Isles.

HIE chief Black was in Shetland over a few days at the turn of the month, visiting a range of economic interests including Lerwick Port Authority, logistics company Peterson and Scalloway Community Development Company.

HIE chief executive Stuart Black. Photo: HIE

He also took the ferries to Yell and Unst, meeting the SaxaVord Spaceport team, Nova Innovation – where he saw two new tidal turbines awaiting deployment – and North Yell Development Council.

Speaking after his visit, Black told Shetland News that fixed links could help to realise the economic potential of the North Isles.

“I had excellent discussions with businesses and community groups in Unst and Yell during my recent visit to Shetland,” he said.

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“A common issue was the importance of transport links to the North Isles and how fixed links could offer the potential to open up the islands to additional economic opportunities, improve access to labour supply and reduce out-migration.

“These will be increasingly important as developments in Unst and Yell progress over the coming years, enabling a larger labour pool and more capacity for freight.

“Sectors such as renewables, hydrogen, space and aquaculture offer significant opportunities in the Northern Isles.”

He said in previous decades replacing ferries with fixed links elsewhere in the Highlands and Islands has provided “sustained economic and social benefits”.

He also pointed to examples in Scandinavia and the Faroe Islands.

“I do think the time is right to be considering fixed links to take advantage of the economic opportunities in our island communities and HIE will be looking to see how innovative funding mechanisms might be available to deliver this,” Black added.

HIE is a development agency for the Highlands and Islands, funded by the Scottish Government.

But with the Scottish Government seemingly not keen to get involved in Shetland’s inter-island links, thought has been given to the UK Government – particularly through its new Levelling Up programme – for potential fixed links funding.

Meanwhile Whalsay Community Council vice-chairman William Polson recently wrote to Scottish transport minister Jenny Gilruth about the work carried out previously in exploring the costs of a tunnel to the island.

But in a letter seen by Shetland News which was sent earlier this month, a Transport Scotland official reiterated the view that inter-island fixed links are the responsibility of the council.

An aerial view of Whalsay. Photo: Ivan Reid

The letter added that a previous study by Shetland Islands Council, jointly funded by the Scottish Government, into a possible Whalsay fixed link concluded that the idea be rejected.

This was on the basis that the “cost significantly exceeds the expenses associated with on-going ferry services, even when considered over two ferry replacement cycles”.

The letter added that a further report published in 2018 showed that “cost remained a prohibitive factor in the construction of a Whalsay fixed link”.

But Polson claimed decision-makers “followed advice in reports containing what appears to have been flawed figures and calculations”.

He added in a letter to SIC councillors earlier this summer that “many of our island residents have continued to request over the past two decades that more financially and eco-friendly fixed links are built instead of renewing the ferry services”.

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