By NEIL RIDDELL
Tens of millions of pounds of community funds could be poured into a Shetland-built and owned vessel to replace one of NorthLink’s existing freight ferries and run between Lerwick and Bergen every weekend during the summer.
An idea to pay for the construction of a boat which would then be leased to the Scottish government has been concocted by the council’s transport partnership ZetTrans, with local businessman John White also involved in the discussions, and an initial approach to the government has been made.
Should the proposal – described as still being at a preliminary and informal stage – get the go-ahead, it is hoped that the vessel could be built and ready to go in time for the start of the new contract to serve Shetland, Orkney and the Scottish mainland, currently held by NorthLink and due to run out in 2012.
One of the chief attractions behind Shetland building its own freight ferry is that it would have full say in exactly what kind of vessel is needed. The proposal is for a “fit for purpose” configuration allowing the boat to carry freight and also up to 150 passengers to enable a weekend run to Bergen or elsewhere.
The idea is that the vessel would be bigger than the Hjaltland and the Hrossey, but still small enough to be able to negotiate safely in and out of Aberdeen Harbour.
Both of the existing cargo boats, the Hascosay and Clare, are more than 30 years old, not very fuel efficient and costly to maintain and there have been numerous complaints about their standard. In addition, since the departure of Smyril Line’s Norröna almost two years ago, the tourist industry in particular has bemoaned the lack of a direct sea link to Norway.
The existing passenger ships are owned and leased to the Scottish Government by the Royal Bank of Scotland and the proposal would essentially see the charitable trust play the role of lender in the hope of making a commercial return on its investment.
It is not clear how costly the initial outlay would prove to be, though speculative figures of anything from £20 million to £40 million have been mentioned.
If the ambitious concept went ahead and proved to be a success, thought may even be given to building a second customised ferry to do the freight run to Aberdeen and take passengers to Faroe or another destination during the summer months.
But although the proposed investment would have to be backed by a Scottish Government guarantee, given the loss of millions of pounds of Shetland Development Trust money in the Smyril investment, there will inevitably be a degree of public suspicion at the prospect of potentially huge sums of community money being invested in this way.
A report on the matter was discussed in private yesterday by the charitable trust’s property-leasing arm SLAP.
Afterwards ZetTrans chairman Allan Wishart said there was considerable resistance among many trustees at the prospect of looking at big new investments, but he said if the Scottish government could guarantee the outlay then it could be a good source of funding to help the trust to fund projects like new care homes in the future.
Mr Wishart said: “It’s an idea, a concept worth exploring because at the end of the day it’s a Scottish government responsibility to provide the lifeline services. This does not in any way negate that or reduce that requirement.
“The first call will be to see if the government will fund it, if not will they look at guaranteeing the lease? The big result is having a vessel that would satisfy the demands of the exporters and freight people in Shetland and provide additional passenger capacity.”
Those involved in drawing up the scheme insist that there is “no question of subsidising anything” and that NorthLink, or whoever the successful tender for the new lifeline contract is, would simply sub-contract the freight vessel out to a third party for the summer trips to Bergen.
But SIC convener Sandy Cluness said the council had far too many other commitments at a local level to start thinking about constructing vessels.
“I certainly think that’s a non-starter,” he said. “In my view we have plenty to do with our money locally before we start building ships. I would have thought there is very little possibility – in fact no possibility – of that going ahead.”
MSP Tavish Scott said there was no question that the NorthLink freight ships needed to be replaced “before too long” and that while the Scottish Government had responsibility for funding the lifeline services, he would welcome any innovative move to replace the vessels.
“I have already raised the need for new freight vessels with the transport minister and the issue was discussed again at the industry freight meeting in Lerwick on Monday,” Mr Scott said. “But, if the council or charitable trust could negotiate a contract with the government to lease them a new freight ferry, with a guaranteed commercial return on Shetland’s investment, then I would back such a proposal.”
SLAP’s management, meanwhile, is understood to be concerned that in the past year or so there have been so many projects mentioned as possible investments, most significantly the £49 million new Anderson High School and a £250 million investment in Viking Energy’s proposed windfarm, and it cannot possibly undertake them all.