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Council / Macdonald hopeful that setting up a taskforce on tunnels could be a step forward

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

A UK-wide task force on tunnels and replacing aging ferries is likely to be set up following a two-day meeting of the government’s Islands Forum, held in Stornoway on Monday and Tuesday.

But any progress on the pressing issues of digital and physical connectivity could be held up by a general election, likely to be held next year.

SIC political leader Emma Macdonald said there clearly has been a willingness and “an understanding of the challenges” on the part of the UK Government that did “sound quite positive”.

She and council chief executive Maggie Sandison had travelled to the Western Isles for the third Islands Forum, chaired by levelling up secretary Michael Gove.

Macdonald said the forum was a good opportunity to directly engage with UK Government ministers – something that did not happen very regularly.

“It is an opportunity to build relationships and get to know one another better,” she said.

SIC political leader Emma Macdonald. Photo: Shetland News

“We have got many opportunities to meet ministers from the Scottish Government, (…) but we don’t get an awful lot of opportunities to engage directly with the UK Government.

“This forum really gives us the opportunity to ensure that they hear what the priorities are for us and our communities.

“It is not about us saying ‘poor us’, it is us saying: ’we do so much for the UK, what we need is to get a little help to unlock more’.”

Macdonald said plans to set up a task force to get the UK and the Scottish governments around a table together with island authorities was a step forward.

The meeting also heard from the UK Infrastructure Bank about funding mechanism for large projects.

“It needs a much bigger and broader conversation, it is not something that we can do on our own, it is not something the Scottish Government can do on their own,” Macdonald said.

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“So, the challenge is how do we join that together.

“We need solutions to these aging vessels, and although tunnels are a long-term aspiration for a lot of our routes, we will need ferries before that is realised.

“We have to do something about that now, so it is a real recognition that we need to look at that and the UK Government expressed that they could be interested.”

Gove meanwhile confirmed that the UK Government could, potentially, find some money to help island communities “We do have some flexibility within our budgets but we do need to make sure that we are balancing the needs of Shetland with those of Orkney, the Western Isles and other islands as well.”

With previous meetings of the Islands Forum held in Orkney, the Isle of Wight and now Lewis, the next meeting in six months’ time should again be hosted by a non-Scottish island community.

However, no date and location has been agreed yet, and depending on the date for the 2024 general election it could well be some time until the next Islands Forum, Macdonald said.

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