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Transport / Proposed new Fair Isle ferry no longer set to be fully ‘ro-ro’ as estimated costs rise

The Fair Isle ferry Good Shepherd at Grutness. Photo: Ronnie Robertson

THE POTENTIAL design of the proposed new Fair Isle ferry has been scaled back from a full ro-ro vessel amid rising costs – with the estimated budget for the project now standing at between £40 million and £45 million.

Instead, the replacement 24-metre ferry looks set to be primarily load on, load off.

The vessel design is expected to still offer the option to include occasional ro-ro (roll on, roll off) sailings at certain tide states, to run between Lerwick and Fair Isle.

Councillors agreed in a private meeting on Wednesday to progress the project, meaning that the next stage of work can now continue towards a full business case, which will consider detailed designs and more accurate costs.

It is understood they were presented with a number of options on its possible design, from ro-ro to lift on, lift off.

An outline business case completed in 2021 had picked a ro-ro vessel as the way forward.

Ro-ro ferries are used on most of Shetland’s inter-island ferry services, and allows people to drive vehicles on and off.

However, due to the constraints of the vessel and harbour, Fair Isle has traditionally had a system where vehicles and cargo are lifted off by crane.

When the decision was made in November 2022 to replace the Good Shepherd IV with a ro-ro vessel and undergo harbour works, the project costs stood at nearly £30 million.

This was to be met with nearly £27 million of provisional funding from the UK Government’s Levelling Up Scheme, and around £3 million from Shetland Islands Council itself.

But the SIC said on Thursday that construction cost estimates have risen, “as a result of economic and geopolitical issues”, while there are also pressures on the local construction workforce and supply chain, which also contribute to the increased costs.

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The SIC said these rising estimates led the project team to explore options that constrain costs while retaining as much of the original project ambitions. This has resulted in a fully ro-ro vessel no longer being pursued.

The collective ambition is to ensure that the vessel provides a larger freight capacity, with suitable methods to load and transport plant and equipment, and a more comfortable sea crossing for passengers.

The project includes a pier extension and rock armour at Grutness Pier, and a new slipway, boat noust and cradle at North Haven in Fair Isle. Dredging at both harbours is also included in the cost estimates.

In light of the increased overall project costs, when asked how the funding situation may change a  spokesperson for the SIC said “several sources of funding are being investigated, which will be made clear in the full business case”.

At the end of last year Shetland Islands Council tendered for a new vessel, while it recently receiving planning consent for harbour works in Fair Isle.

SIC depute convener and Shetland South councillor Bryan Peterson said: “Since the council agreed to support the case for new ferry for Fair Isle, the economic climate has been challenging.

“Our project team have been working hard to find ways to constrain costs as far as possible.  We have spoken regularly with the Fair Isle community to discuss what they need from the new vessel.

“We’re really grateful for their contributions, which have been positive and pragmatic, and have helped shape the vessel design and works required to meet their needs.”

Councillor Moraig Lyall, who chairs the council’s environment and transport committee, said: “Rising costs are complication for many construction projects currently and the new ferry for Fair Isle is not immune – but we’re committed to meeting the future transport needs of the community.

“The project team will now complete the detailed full business case, that will be considered in due course by the council and the Department for Transport.”

The Good Shepherd IV, which is more than 30 years old and sails between the isle and Grutness, is described as no longer fit for purpose.

Fair Isle is located between the Shetland mainland and Orkney and has a population of around 45.

The Good Shepherd IV, which is more than 30 years old and sails between the isle and Grutness, is described as no longer fit for purpose. It takes around two and a half hours to complete the journey.

There are accessibility issues on board the vessel, and the service is unreliable.

Chair of the Fair Isle Community Association David Parnaby said islanders were “pragmatic” about the decision.

“We need a replacement for it, and we need something that is more suited to the isle’s current needs,” he said.

“It looks like we’re not going to be able to get what was in the original plan, but I think the community are fairly pragmatic.

“We need something, the council knows we need something, and I think there’s been a really good exchange of views on what the options are.”

Parnaby said the overall feeling from the community is “not one of disappointment that we’re not getting what was in the original proposal”.

“It seems to be a largely positive view from the community that there is a real commitment from the SIC to be able to take the next steps,” he continued.

“I think every step that gets us closer to a new vessel is a positive one.”

Parnaby also praised Shetland Islands Council for the way officers have communicated with the community.

Whilst the meeting on Wednesday afternoon was in private due to commercial sensitivity, the community was able to provide input ahead of the session – and SIC officers updated them in the evening.

Parnaby added that key issues for islanders were having a larger boat with more freight capacity, which could also undergo faster and more comfortable journeys – all things which he said are in line to be met.

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