Joined-up plan is needed (John Tulloch)
The Whalsay fish factory closed in 2012 with ferry cuts cited by locals as a prime cause. Symbister Harbour and Whalsay’s ferries are deteriorating and need upgrading.
Skerries is in crisis following a three-year population implosion of more than 50 per cent. The local salmon farm and associated factory have closed, along with the secondary and primary schools and the fire service. Investment is urgently needed to improve the key factors, employment, education, and transport links.
Skerries ferries currently run to Symbister, Vidlin and Lerwick, some of the longest trips in Shetland. Efficient transport links between Skerries/Whalsay and Whalsay/Mainland will be essential for any plan to revitalise the isles. But how best to achieve it economically?
The SIC is currently considering transport options including fixed links, attracting controversy over alleged artificial inflation of tunnel estimates.
Community councils have carried out extensive investigations, obtaining quotes and detailed information from Norwegian experts and the SIC which, in Whalsay’s case, indicate £11 million could be saved by investing in a road tunnel instead of new ferries and associated infrastructure.
A further, ongoing saving of £3 million per year is anticipated due to the lower cost of tunnel operation, cumulatively saving a further £90 million over a 30-year ferry lifecycle. However, tunnels last over 100 years so the savings are repeated.
Actual tunnel construction costs in Faroe appear to support the residents’ case, suggesting a major transformation of islanders’ lifestyles is not only possible, but could be a serious money spinner for the SIC/Scottish government.
Extending Symbister’s dilapidated harbour, currently too small to accommodate the local fleet, would facilitate construction of the proposed “state-of-the-art” fish factory that would bring up to 50 skilled jobs and £2 million per year income for the SIC.
However, the proposal was summarily rejected by the SIC development committee last January, based on minimal information, including a “ball park” cost estimate of £20-40 million which was, again, disputed by well-informed islanders.
Comparison with similar, larger harbour works at Lerwick (over three times the size and costing £16 million), suggests the Whalsay development could be built for under £10 million, half the lower SIC figure.
Taking the median anticipated income of £1.5 million per annum, would give SIC a return on investment of 15 per cent a year and a simple payback of about seven years, as opposed to the “20+ years” claimed in the council report.
Setting aside the disputed costs, the emerging crisis in Skerries and the UK “Brexit” vote themselves suggest the decision to reject the harbour development needs urgent review.
The £11 million saved by opting for a tunnel instead of refurbishing the ferry service could, alone, cover the cost of the harbour upgrade.
Furthermore, tunnel works would produce rock spoil that could be used for harbour construction, providing substantial savings for both projects, as disposal of spoil is itself costly. All of which would increase SIC’s profit from its investment.
Given such a tunnel, it would be logical to use some of the savings to improve the Skerries ferry service by taking a more efficient, direct route to Whalsay and on to the Mainland via the tunnel.
Using a smaller vessel and cutting the Vidlin and Lerwick services would provide substantial savings, enabling a more regular, timely service to Whalsay with easy access to the Mainland. Skerries, Whalsay and Mainland people would then be able to commute to/from where they live for work, education or recreational pursuits, as desired.
Thus the three key improvement areas identified above, employment, education and transport links, would be addressed and the council/Scottish government would be many millions better off.
Assuming the islanders’ cost estimates stand up to scrutiny, this seems a “no-brainer”, so why don’t we just get on with it?
Whether the political will exists is debatable, as will be the question of who will pay, SIC or the Scottish government? Failure from such inaction would be inexcusable, a damning indictment of our dysfunctional political system.
SIC leaders have been to Faroe and report seeing a “world class”, self-governing country, where road tunnels pass under mountains, fjords and sounds (19 tunnels, totalling 40km), where high quality broadband and mobile communications are universal. The Faroese have “made the jump to hyperspace”, effectively, riding a time warp into the mid-21st century.
We are decades behind and as long as Shetland’s local powers continue to be eroded, we shall never catch up. We shall fall farther behind.
Faroese prime minister Aksell Johanneson was quoted as saying: “We built our first tunnel in 1963, and today … most of our islands and villages (are) connected with tunnels. This has proven to be important for the development of the small communities. Building tunnels is … about investing in people and in the future of our communities.”
This is the attitude needed to lead a successful, remote island community. May we see some of it here please?