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Transport / ‘First step’ towards tunnels? Councillors approve £700k transport strategy

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

COUNCILLORS have given the go-ahead for a significant strategy which will explore the future of Shetland’s inter-island transport network.

The transport connectivity strategy, which will cover both ferries and fixed links, is expected to come at a cost of around £700,000.

It is seen as a first step towards the council’s goal of securing funding for tunnels.

A long-awaited report on the project went in front of elected members this week, with the full council giving it the final go-ahead on Wednesday.

It is expected to take around 18 months to complete in total.

The idea behind the strategic and outline business cases is to inform future decision-making on Shetland’s inter-island transport network.

They would also provide the basis for engagement with both the Scottish and UK governments on establishing their role in addressing transport needs within Shetland.

External funding is being explored, but if it is not secured the council would dip into Crown Estate income the council receives every year from assets out to 12 miles at sea around the isles.

It comes against a backdrop of Shetland Islands Council’s ferry fleet continuing to age – as well as a desire to see tunnels as a long-term solution on the busiest routes.

The report to councillors says a “very broad estimate” of fixed links for Bluemull Sound (including Yell to Fetlar), Yell Sound, Whalsay and Bressay stands at more than £500 million at 2022 prices.

The Bressay ferry. Photo: SIC

If the entire network was to remain ferry-only then around £120 million to £150 million of capital investment would be needed over the next ten to 15 years.

The report on the project got its first airing at a meeting of the environment and transport committee on Tuesday.

Committee chair Moraig Lyall stressed it was just the first step in a lengthy process which covers both ferries and tunnels.

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“What we’re proposing today is that we take the first step in producing the information that will hopefully enable us to carry on down this path towards getting tunnels for some of our islands,” she said.

Lyall acknowledged the large workload for council officers, but said she hoped the project would be the “priority of priorities”.

North Isles member Robert Thomson successfully proposed that communities are involved in the process through a project board.

Later on Tuesday the report went in front of the policy and resources committee.

Referring to the success of tunnels in other countries like Faroe, Shetland South councillor Robbie McGregor – who represents the SNP – asked whether there were any “blockers” to fixed links outside of the cost.

But development director Neil Grant said he felt there were not any, referring to the joined-up position the council now has on fixed links.

The topic then received its final airing at the full council on Wednesday.

Chief executive Maggie Sandison said discussions have been held with the UK and Scottish governments regarding tunnels, but no funding commitment has yet been secured.

She told Wednesday’s meeting that councillors would effectively be approving a £700,000 spend without the knowledge of whether tunnels would ultimately be financed. The hope, though, is for a positive outcome.

Sandison and leader Emma Macdonald met Scottish deputy first minster John Swinney and transport minister Jenny Gilruth yesterday (Tuesday) to talk ferry replacements and the idea of tunnels.

She said there was a commitment given to working collaboratively on the issue and that it was a “shared” problem.

Meanwhile Macdonald reiterated that the focus cannot just be on tunnels, as some communities with ageing ferries cannot wait until then.

Development committee chairman Dennis Leask also stressed the importance of involving local tunnel action groups in the process, such as those set up in Unst and Yell.

North Isles councillor Duncan Anderson agreed, saying communities need a direct input through the whole process. “It will make a big difference,” he added.

Meanwhile convener Andrea Manson added that in her time as a councillor she has never been more hopeful of achieving success regarding tunnels.

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