By RYAN TAYLOR
PLANS to launch a new freight ferry service connecting Shetland with Norway are hanging in the balance because of a delay in European funding.
Local businessman John White says his hopes of launching the new project, which could see Shetland act as a cargo hub for Europe, have been put in jeopardy because of summer holidays in Brussels.
The former marine civil engineer says his venture’s future viability depends on securing funds from the EU Marco Polo start up programme.
Mr White had hoped to hear the outcome of his application almost a month ago, but European holidays mean he may not find out for a couple of weeks yet.
The business depends on the cash to buy one of the vessels needed for the venture, but if the money is not forthcoming soon the seller may go elsewhere.
Mr White announced his plans for the new ferry service in April.
The ambitious project aims to see one ship running between Kristiansund and Lerwick, with connections to Orkney, Aberdeen and Scrabster through the existing NorthLink service.
A second, larger ship is also planned to run between Kristiansund, Zeebrugge and Rosyth.
The nature of the venture gave rise to its name, Norshukon – an acronym of Norway, Shetland, UK and onwards.
Aimed at providing a motorway of the sea to help shift freight off Europe’s crowded roads, the project’s four partners are Møregruppen AS, Shetland Development Trust, Shetland’s transport partnership ZetTrans and south Scotland transport partnership SEStran.
The Shetland Development Trust has already invested £50,000 in a feasibility study for Norshukon.
Speaking to The Shetland Times this week, Mr White described the delay as “very frustrating”, and said the whole business could be sunk if the money was not forthcoming.
“Originally, the scheme was supposed to have been approved by the end of July, but the next communication we got was that because of European holidays it wouldn’t be until the end of August,” he said.
“Vessels that are available are very short in supply. I had bargained to give the ship owners a decision by the end of July, but I’m not able to do that now.
“The vessel might well go to somebody else. It could jeopardise the whole project because I can’t start to get the work done, and to get the thing up and running without it.
“There’s no point in taking on staff now and having to pay wages when there is a chance it might not get approved. That would be commercial suicide.
“Brussels are obviously not a commercial operation, or it wouldn’t take so long. Taking this long is ridiculous, but then Europe seems to close down in August.”
A businessman in Shetland for over 30 years, Mr White started out by founding Whites Coaches in 1975.
He was also a pioneering figure in Shetland’s salmon farming industry, forging ahead with the successful Kergord hatchery in 1982, before the business went into receivership 10 years later and was taken over by Paul Featherstone.
He has since become a director and shareholder in haulage firm Northwards, but it is the possible Norshukon venture that has captivated his business mind.
If the project does go ahead, the biggest demand for the freight service is likely to come from Norway’s oil industry – the country’s largest oil base, Vestbase, is located in the Kristiansund area.
Speaking at this week’s ZetTrans meeting, network development manager Ken Duerden said there was some “urgency” for the funding, because a worldwide lack of ships could make finding another one a difficult task.