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Transport / High level of interest in tunnels across political parties

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

THE IDEA of tunnels to some of Shetland’s islands got a mention at the recent Liberal Democrats autumn conference – with Scottish leader Alex Cole-Hamilton taking inspiration from the transport network in Faroe.

Scottish Lib Dem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton. Photo: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

He highlighted the Unst spaceport, saying: “How much easier it would be to establish that new industry if only they weren’t entirely dependent on sea crossings?”

Cole-Hamilton also said fixed links to Scottish island communities are in the “national interest”.

Shetland’s two Liberal Democrat representatives Beatrice Wishart and Alistair Carmichael have both supported the idea, and have held “Tunnel Vision” engagement events in the isles.

MSP Wishart previously said fixed links are the “long-term” transport connectivity solution instead of ferries.

It comes as Shetland Islands Council pushes for government engagement on tunnels – all whilst the age of its ferry fleet continues to rise.

Funding them remains a key unanswered question, however.

Highlands and Islands Conservative Jamie Halcro Johnston.

But what do politicians from the other parties in the Scottish Parliament think? Shetland News asked around the Highlands and Islands MSPs to get their thoughts.

Conservative Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston said he has long advocated tunnels or bridges for island communities where they are feasible and where there is public support.

“Unfortunately, this has not been the approach of the Scottish Government in Edinburgh, who are only now showing even the most basic interest in the potential for fixed links,” he said.

“Given our ageing islands ferries fleet, and increasing issues around reliability, the time for serious consideration and action is long overdue.

“We are already seeing the consequences of the prolonged neglect of those vital lifeline links for island communities like Shetland, and I have repeatedly warned that, unless something is done now, we risk seeing the crisis engulfing the west coast network spreading further.”

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The MSP said he has engaged with Shetland Islands Council leadership and campaign groups on the issue.

“It is imperative that the Scottish Government listens to those local voices and we get more than just platitudes,” Halcro Johnston said.

“Delivering reliable connectivity in Shetland, as it is in all our island communities, is absolutely vital to ensure that our islands can provide a sustainable future for those who live on them, and that current and future projects – such as the new spaceport – can be delivered with full impact.

Highlands & Islands SNP MSP Emma Roddick. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

“For that reliable connectivity to be achieved, serious investment will be needed. And that must include all options, including fixed links.”

Meanwhile SNP Highlands and Islands MSP Emma Roddick said she believes fixed links are a “necessary step forward, particularly when talking about inter-island transport connectivity”.

“Not only are they environmentally sustainable, helping us to reach net zero, but they could bring significant economic benefit to surrounding areas,” she said.

“I know that the Scottish Government is in discussions with Shetland Islands Council as it works on the business case for potential fixed links.

“I look forward to seeing the outcome of these discussions.”

Labour MSP Rhoda Grant.

Labour’s Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant said lifeline inter-island ferries face “constant challenges, with much of fleet over 30 years old, some vessels operating past their intended lifespan, and a quarter of posts currently vacant”.

“Because of this, I am increasingly interested in the suggested possibility of replacing some of the busiest inter-island ferry routes with bridges and/or tunnels,” she said.

“It is a solution that has worked effectively in other countries, and I would like to see it properly considered.”

Grant said the unanswered question around funding also applies to ferry replacements.

“It could also be argued that a tunnel or bridge, while more expensive initially, does not need to be replaced every twenty years and could therefore provide an effective long-term solution that will dramatically improve inter-island connectivity,” she continued.

“I welcome the news that the council has secured a meeting with the UK Government Scottish Secretary Alister Jack to discuss inter-island connectivity and I hope that provides a way forward.”

Green MSP for the Highlands and Islands Ariane Burgess.

Finally, Scottish Greens’ MSP for the Highlands and Islands Ariane Burgess said she is keen to work with Shetland’s on the best solution for their circumstances.

“I recently met with the speaker of the Faroese Parliament where they have been expanding fixed links for the last decade,” she said.

“The future Suðuroy tunnel will, together with the other road tunnels, enable 99 per cent of the 50,000 residents there to travel without ferry connections.

“The Carbon Neutral Islands Project on Yell is supporting our island communities to decarbonise, yet for Yell to be genuinely a carbon neutral island, the way islanders move to and from the island must be addressed.

“I have called for fixed links for Shetland to be added to the Strategic Transport Appraisal Guidance (STAG) process as well as part of the Island Connectivity Plan and asked a written question on how the government plans to engage with communities on this issue.”

A meeting is expected to take place between Shetland Islands Council and the UK Government’s Scottish secretary Allister Jack in October, with transport on the agenda, while the local authority has also requested talks with the Scottish Government.

Council leader Emma Macdonald said in early September: “In March, Shetland Islands Council committed to spend up to £700k on developing business cases and further work on the project; this is obviously a serious commitment of resources, and the time has now come for both the Scottish and UK Governments to make clear the level of their commitment to our partnership.”

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