SIC may have to shoulder transport costs
By RYAN TAYLOR
SHETLAND Islands Council must provide improvements to its transport infrastructure without actually having the money to pay for them.
Members of the transport partnership ZetTrans heard this week that crucial upgrades to the inter island ferry service could set the authority back “multi millions of pounds” with little prospect of help from the Scottish government.
North Isles councillor Josie Simpson said he did not know where the money was going to come from without funding from Holyrood.
ZetTrans chairman Allan Wishart told the committee on Monday the authority would have to be increasingly “innovative” in securing funding.
Their comments follow approval by the Scottish government of Shetland’s transport strategy.
The statutory document promises to provide a blueprint to help shape the future of services to, from and within the isles.
Transport chiefs say the plan, which covers all methods of transportation in Shetland from ferry and air links down to walking and cycling, will provide any evidence needed to support the case for future projects.
Although the strategy has been welcomed, it will not provide a blank cheque for improvements.
In a letter to Mr Wishart, transport minister Stewart Stevenson said Shetland’s strategy fulfilled its role in supporting national priorities.
But the SIC’s harbour master, Jim Dickson, said members should be wary of exactly what the government was saying.
He highlighted the last sentence of Mr Stevenson’s letter, which read: “Delivery of the strategy … in Shetland is a matter for ZetTrans and its constituent council.”
Mr Dickson asked: “Are they cutting off funding from Edinburgh? What do these particular words mean?”
Mr Wishart said calls for funding would be placed on the government from all authorities, and added the council could not expect a free handout.
“It’s interesting how we hear about Orkney trying to fund two schools and a swimming pool, and how the government is going to make money available over the next 30 years,” he said.
“However the government is not going to give that money away. It’s going to have to be raised.”
That worried Mr Simpson, who said communities in the North Isles could suffer if inter island ferries were not upgraded.
A report on the STAG study into the Bluemull crossing was due to go before the ZetTrans board, but was delayed until the next cycle because of ongoing work.
“We’re speaking about multi-million pounds. I know we are going down the road of STAG but we have the most thundering challenge ahead of us,” he said.
“Where are we going to get the money to provide that service? We’re building up folks’ hopes, but how are we going to fund it? That’s what is worrying me, because we are speaking big, big money.”
Mr Wishart admitted funding would be a “big challenge”, and said the council had to look at finding “innovative ways” of raising capital.
“Whether that is through borrowing internally … every channel has to be explored,” he said.
ZetTrans chief official Micheal Craigie said demand for transport improvements outstripped the money available to cover their costs.
Interestingly, he said the partnership had “a few ideas” of how to raise cash, but added these would have to be discussed informally with board members.
“Shetland, for the first time, is facing the need to deliver projects that exceed resources as we view them,” he said.
“We’re looking forward to implementing our approach on this and finding solutions. We can’t conceive a future where we don’t have links between our islands.
“How we do this is not clear yet, but it’s going to be an interesting time figuring it out.”
The question of financing projects has arisen from a Scottish government decision to channel funding through local authority level.
Previously, transport partnerships received ring-fenced capital funding to deliver transport projects.
But following the introduction of a single outcome agreement, that money has largely been curtailed.
Now, ZetTrans’ ability to deliver its strategy depends on SIC priorities, as well as funding from some external sources.
All projects ZetTrans proposes will require funding from the council’s general fund through its capital plan.
Approval for the strategy itself has been a long time coming. ZetTrans, along with six other regional transport partnerships, submitted its draft strategy to Scottish ministers in March last year, following an extensive period of consultation.
But the strategy was not approved at the time because of the Scottish parliamentary elections.
The new government then reviewed the role of regional transport partnerships, finally deciding strategies should be revised to reflect the government’s aims for the future of transport provision.
Shetland’s strategy was then revised to reflect this, and resubmitted to ministers on 5th May.
ZetTrans has already carried out significant work, such as studies into the future of island links and introducing a travel plan.
Mr Wishart said a lot of work had gone into the development of the transport strategy.
“I am grateful for all the comments and ideas received from so many people and also for the huge amount of work put into the strategy by ZetTrans and Shetland Islands Council staff,” he said.
? MALE dominated council committees should become a thing of the past, according to a report before the ZetTrans board this week.
The gender balance report found a breakdown of those involved in decision and policy-making issues weighed heavily in favour of men.
Currently, only five of the 22 elected councillors in Shetland are women.
Report author Laura Saunders said more women should be encouraged to step out from the shadows and stand for election.
And she said younger people of either gender coming forward as candidates would help “bring down barriers” in the electoral process.
The committee heard Zetrans could play its part in improving equal opportunities for women.
Lerwick north member Caroline Miller said “attitudes, barriers and provision” were key to providing the right mix of male and female workers.
“As a council we have to remove barriers where we can, and in ZetTrans we make provision by enhancing public transport so folk can have access to work wherever they can.
“We’ve got a long way to go before we’ve got childcare in place 52 weeks a year.
“If we can achieve that then we will be removing most of the barriers towards women being able to obtain high positions.”
Shetland west member Frank Robertson said: “Young women of today have a distinct confidence, and it’s only a matter of time before we see them moving in and taking their share of the decision making process.”
Earlier this year the SIC came bottom of a list of Scottish local authorities when it came to employing top female workers.
The poor ratio of women to men was put down to a high proportion of the council’s top employees working in the maritime sector – an area that does not normally appeal to women.