Tuesday 23 April 2024
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Viewpoint / ‘It could all go horribly wrong’

Shetland’s Labour councillor Tom Morton offers his views on the replacement Fair Isle ferry project, which has been awarded around £27 million from the UK Government but faces a 2026 deadline.

Shetland North councillor Tom Morton.

WE begged, we wheedled, we lobbied. We threw internal and external resources around like confetti, and continue to do so. But never mind.

Westminster, under the auspices of that nice former Press and Journal striker Mr Gove, has promised us £27m to pay for a new ferry to Fair Isle, a replacement for the venerable and somewhat bobbly Good Shepherd which will allow Tesco delivery trucks to roll on, and roll off again without, hopefully, rolling overboard.

Oh, and new terminals at Grutness and on Fair Isle to handle the camper vans, aforementioned sun-dried tomato suppliers, Lamborghinis and Ferraris.

There will be timed motorcycle races around the Stonybreck circuit, and mass drag meets at the airport. And when I say ‘drag’, I mean dragster, not an extension of Shetland Pride. Tourists will abound. The birds whacked by fast-moving windscreens will be stuffed, mounted and prized for their rarity.

God bless you, Mr Gove. But why? Why did you choose to dollop your generosity on Shetland? After all, this is not a Tory constituency in urgent need of electoral shoring? Oh, I see: the last of the Lib Dems are worth a threatened wildlife protection order, just to spite Holyrood, the SNP and all who travel, green about the gills, in that failing motorhome. And Shetland needs a bit of stroking, what with its strategic importance in offshore oil, wind, defence against the Russians and repelling attacks from Martians.

And you probably won’t have to hand over the £27m, anyway, as the whole project has to be completed by the end of March 2026, and let’s face it, there isn’t a seal pup’s chance in an Orca pod of that happening.

Last week, I could not believe my ears as council officials made reassuring noises about constructive chats with Westminster civil servants about the timescale being flexible, probably about the problems posed by weather and wildlife, about a few million of an overspend here and there being, well, neither here. Nor there.

And anyway, Shetland Islands Council has a contingency of £3m to cover any nasty surprises. Meanwhile, no contractor is in place and there isn’t time, councillors were told for open tendering.

Some lucky or unlucky firm will get the nod, should they want it. But it might be tricky to find someone. Because this project has the words ‘poisoned’ and ‘chalice’ written all over it.

The Fair Isle ferry Good Shepherd IV is due to be replaced by 2026. Photo: SIC

For one thing, nobody I’ve talked to in the world of marine construction thinks £30m will be anywhere near enough. £40-45m is the range I’ve been told is more realistic, which is approaching £1m for every human resident on Fair Isle. And then there’s that March 2026 deadline.

The weather and wildlife (birds, after all, are what Fair Isle is about, along with gansies) restrictions mean that annual time-windows for actually building ferry terminals are small.

One big storm, or two, and a whole year’s work could be suspended. Suddenly we could be talking not about 2026, but 2027, or 2028. Then there’s the politics of it all. Not that politics is something anyone at Shetland Islands Council appears to understand.

What if the deadline isn’t met, a Labour government scraps or just backpedals on the whole Levelling Up scheme and Shetland Islands Council is left scrambling to meet the entire cost?

Having entered what will probably be a contract with a potentially litigious contractor who, if they’ve any sense, will have played serious hardball on what will happen should the client renege on its deal with them, inserting ‘cost plus’ clauses and all sort of things.

Council lawyers are doubtless currently working flat out on the implications of all this. I wish them well. Oh, but never mind. We have all that money in our much-debated reserves. Of course, the Westminster apparatchiks know that. Of course, they could turn round with a smile when everything falls apart and say “nah, time to take a look at the weather boys. You’ve been talking about weather. Didn’t you notice? It’s a rainy day out there…”

As I say, it could all go horribly wrong. One big wind at the wrong time is all it would take. A lesson from history: in 1989, a single storm during construction work destroyed the Gills Bay linkspan, part of the planned short sea crossing of the Pentland Firth from Orkney to Caithness.

This was being built and was to be operated by Orkney Ferries, part of Orkney Islands Council. The resultant financial crisis almost bankrupted Orkney and led it into a disastrous period of financial near-meltdown. In the end, the Gills Bay disaster was turned into a commercial success by Pentland Ferries, whose acumen must however be questioned by this insane notion of a catamaran service between…Orkney and Grutness. Great. I’ve always wanted to visit North Ronaldsay.

Councillor Stephen Leask said at last week’s meeting that we should beware the Fair Isle project becoming “our HS2”. I worry about an example much closer to home.

Not that the Orcadians will have to fret, when they become a subsidiary of Greater Norway, as appears to be OIC leader James Stockan’s ambition.

I suppose Shetland could follow suit, but as I say, Westminster does love our potential for lobbing rockets spaceward and detecting incoming nukes. Besides, Norway is already well on the way to buying up Shetland via our wind farms and whatever they’re planning for Scatsta.

Maybe those London operators will chuck cash at the Fair Isle Tesco delivery service after all. But frankly, I doubt it. Especially if Labour form the next government. They’re Co-op customers.


Do you have a view on the issues raised in this opinion piece?
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