Whalsay will have to wait until 30th June to find out “once and for all” if the council backs a tunnel, bigger ferries based at North Voe or South Voe or even some other as-yet unspecified form of fixed link.
The latest delay agreed by councillors today allows a special group of six councillors and senior officials to get together and spend nearly six weeks investigating all potential sources of funding for a fixed link while also providing time to consider the information and costs for a tunnel which visiting Norwegian experts will give councillors at a meeting open to the public next Friday in Lerwick.
While backing the group, North Isles councillor Josie Simpson, who lives in Whalsay, is determined that 30th June will be decision day, saying that the people of Whalsay need to know where they are going.
According to councillor Allan Wishart that will not be through a tunnel because the Norwegian public roads authority takes 12 years for a tunnel project from start to finish, which for Shetland could be about 15 years, making it far too long a wait for Whalsay.
However, councillor Bill Manson warned that Shetland could not continue to rely on the cash-strapped government to subsidise 60 per cent of the ferry running costs, hinting that cuts would spell the end for today’s high level of service. He reminded members that fixed links had long been the stated policy of the council but, as with a lot of other policies, it never did anything about it.
Whalsay’s fate was due to be decided at next Friday’s meeting after the Norwegians briefed the infrastructure committee but North Isles councillor Robert Henderson herded a group of 10 members together to call for more time while a member-official working group was formed to explore funding possibilities “in the wider world” for a fixed link or even for new ferries.
They wanted to continue their work beyond 30th June but Mr Simpson won backing for it to be made the ultimate deadline. He has suffered badly during the bitter feuding over the ferry terminal and the subsequent indecision since the tunnel idea was resurrected.
Head of transport Michael Craigie seemed comfortable with the decision to wait another month. He said it was a good way ahead that gave enough time to gather “evidence-based information” for councillors.
The council has priced a tunnel at anything up to £134 million but this is said by many supporters to be wildly exaggerated in comparison to what Norwegian tunnellers could do it for.
Mr Henderson does not want Whalsay to suffer the same mistake made with Yell Sound where bigger ferries were introduced in 2004 instead of opting for a fixed link. He only found out recently that Yell’s bigger ferries and terminals had cost £19.5 million when for a mere £3.5 million extra they could have had a fixed link. Now the council is paying out more than that every year – £3.8 million – to run the two ferries on that route.
Two years ago the Whalsay service cost nearly £2.9 million to run, according to official council figures, but that figure will rise considerably once one of the so-called B600 super-ferries comes on the route if the council sticks with ferries.
Councillor Betty Fullerton believed the issue facing Whalsay was one which the whole of Shetland should have a say on, not just the Whalsay folk. Fixed links were one way of spending to save for the future, she said, instead of having to tell people their ferry fares were going to rise or their service be cut. “We can’t continue doing more of the same until we go bankrupt,” she said.
She floated the idea of putting fixed links for Whalsay and Bressay together and seeking funding to do both.
Another councillor, Gary Robinson, criticised the raising of expectations in Whalsay of an improved ferry service in future when instead it might have to be cut back. He raised the spectre of having to revert to an Orkney-style ferry service with its high fares and a timetable offering islands one run out and one in each day. He called for the council to do something decisive instead of pouring money into ferries and the pockets of oil companies for fuel.
Mr Wishart also warned members to be careful in going forward that they did not incur yet another ticking off from Audit Scotland for poor decision-making over the Whalsay service and spending years and more than £600,000 on a STAG report and detailed investigations only to discard the findings.
Mr Wishart’s estimate of 12-15 years before a tunnel was ready in Shetland was thought reasonable by councillor Frank Robertson, who spent much of his career working on capital projects for the council. Even a single road took on average five years to deliver, he said.
Councillor Alastair Cooper, who has helped push the tunnel idea in recent months, said experts reckoned it could be done in seven years. Rick Nickerson rubbished the claim. “We’re living in cuckoo land if we think we can build a fixed link or a tunnel to Whalsay in under 10 years.”
The third North Isles member, Laura Baisley, said councillors were embarrassing the Shetland public with their U-turns on issues such as the Bressay bridge and Anderson High School yet off they went again, planning to discard the Shetland transport plan which sets down that a fixed link for Bressay will come first.
Councillor Jonathan Wills said investigation of funding for fixed links would actually make the council look to the auditors like it was being very careful indeed. Using figures obtained from a source in Whalsay he said it had been calculated using council figures that a ferry service would be between £400 million and £700 million more expensive than a tunnel over the course of 50 years. He called for the figures to be checked out. “If they’re baloney let’s hear if they’re baloney.”
He also reminded members that the biggest beneficiary of ending the ferry service would be the Scottish government.
All councillors have been emailed a detailed report compiled by Captain Andy Sandison in Whalsay which compares tunnel and ferry costs but some members appear to view it with contempt. “The nutty professor,” councillor Andrew Hughson called him and his “unsubstantiated figures”. The report has not been made available to the media.
Dr Wills dismissed warnings about Whalsay being cut off if its decaying ferry terminals collapsed in the next few years, calling it “a scare story”. A barge could be brought in temporarily for the ferries to dock at in Symbister, he said, which is a practice used around the world. If Laxo was to fail they could use Vidlin in the interim.
Before the debate the convener announced that a petition against a tunnel had been handed in carrying 236 signatures and warning that such a link would destroy the community. It has been passed on to Mr Craigie. One presented in March had 478 signatures in favour of a tunnel.