Support for a £111 million tunnel for Whalsay is starting to emerge among councillors as an alternative to spending around £60m on ferries and terminals, which is causing deep division in the community.
But the revival of interest in fixed links has probably come too late to solve the dispute in island about where its new ferry terminal should go.
The case for a fixed link was punted by SIC services chairman Gussie Angus at Tuesday’s meeting of the infrastructure committee when he questioned the wisdom of spending perhaps £60m over the next few years on bigger ferries and new terminals at Whalsay, Laxo and Vidlin when the community would still be “a hostage to ferries” for decades to come.
Looking at whole-life costs, he said investment would be better made in a fixed link. Other members agreed. Ferries board chairman Robert Henderson said building the super-ferries for Yell Sound had been “miss-spent cash” when for another £20m there might have been a fixed link to the Mainland.
Councillor Josie Simpson from Whalsay said he had asked people’s opinions during a trip to Faroe last week and all had told him “You’re crazy – go for tunnels!” But tunnels were five to 10 years in the future, he said, and Whalsay could not wait that long because it has a crisis with its terminal now.
Recently the split in Whalsay has been between redeveloping the existing harbour or building a new ferry harbour at North Voe, which is currently undeveloped. Both plans have been costed at around £9m.
A third proposal has now been added, which would expand the existing harbour. It was tabled recently by fishermen and first detailed in The Shetland Times a fortnight ago.
The committee agreed to back SIC transport manager Michael Craigie’s proposal to delay deciding which site was best until a full appraisal can be made of the new option, submitted by William Polson of the Charisma, which has still to be costed.
Mr Craigie said: “On the face of it this option has characteristics that are worthy of further exploration.”
A final decision is set to be made by councillors on 2nd February. A consultation day in Whalsay has been pencilled in for 17th December when all the fishermen should be home.
The new idea is an adaption of one from about six years ago. It involves extending the outer breakwater of the existing harbour to create a safer entrance and extra berthing space for ferries and the fishing fleet. The fishermen fear that a move to the North Voe would mean no more funds to improve the fishing harbour for decades.
Councillor Jonathan Wills called for the committee to dismiss the new option and choose there and then which of the two other options should be pursued for Whalsay. He found no support.
The process agreed by the committee will further delay progress on the terminal plan but, as committee chairwoman Iris Hawkins said, they could not ignore the new proposal.
Mr Craigie warned there could be problems sourcing outside funds to help build a new terminal if the council was not seen to have explored every option.
Councillor Simpson backed the investigation and said he would go along with whatever option was chosen, declaring that “there’s nobody wanting to get this to bed faster than me”.
“We should have one more go at it but I think it should definitely be the last. We’re never going to please the people of Whalsay. We’re never going to please everybody.”
The new terminal has to be big enough to take one 65-metre 31-car super-ferry in the near future and probably two within 10-15 years while avoiding clashing with Whalsay’s large fishing fleet and pleasure boats.
The proposal from the fishermen has already come in for criticism. One former ferry skipper, Peter Walker Anderson, who favours the North Voe, said the harbour would be too narrow and restrictive for ferries; it posed questions about the old pier being able to stand up to the ferries with their powerful thrusters; and would make the small boat marina less sheltered in northerly gales.
The issue of fixed links raged for a decade in Shetland without even one being built. But the spiralling costs of new ferry terminals and operating ever-expanding super-ferries now appears to be coaxing councillors into putting their thinking caps on again.
Currently, Whalsay is behind Bressay, Bluemull and Yell Sound in the priority list for fixed links, although that could change. But Mr Craigie said in-depth studies had shown that over a 60-year timeframe ferries were still the best option for Whalsay.
Infrastructure vice-chairman Allan Wishart called for a report on fixed links early in the new year so that the council can begin putting dates on when they might happen.