Councillors have decided to patch up the ailing Whalsay ferry infrastructure in the hope that external funding becomes available in the distant future for fixed links to all the large islands.
They voted 11-10 to reject the advice of head of finance Graham Johnston who had recommended building a new terminal at North Voe, improving the terminals at Laxo and Vidlin and acquiring a new ferry for the route because, at £26.2 million, that was “unequivocally” cheaper than a tunnel which would cost £83 million at the very least, especially as there would be no Scottish government or European funding before 2015.
Instead, they backed Shetland North councillor Alastair Cooper who said he was “optimistic” money could be found for fixed links not only to Whalsay but to Yell, Unst and Bressay in the longer term.
Although the cost of the Whalsay tunnel is currently put at £83 million, Mr Johnston has said the budget would have to be £112 million to factor in all the risks associated with such a major infrastructure project. If it proceeds with all four tunnels the council is likely to have to find a colossal sum of money. One councillor put it at more than £300 million at today’s prices.
During a lengthy debate at Wednesday’s Full Council meeting North Isles councillor and Whalsay resident Josie Simpson deemed a fixed link “unrealistic” just now, given the financial climate in Scotland, the UK and Europe.
He said he had been in favour of improving the harbour at Symbister but that had been thrown out. Now he just wanted a decision to be made instead of the issue “dragging on and on”. The council was “dithering”, he said, and dismissed the tunnel option as a “red herring”. He was, however, worried about whether the existing service could cope.
Fellow North Isles councillor Laura Baisley, fervently in favour of building a new ferry terminal at North Voe, said she recommended construction start “without delay”. She was not opposed to fixed links, she said, but the community was being “strangled” by lack of capacity on the present service and could not afford to wait any longer. It was to be regretted the people of Whalsay had had their expectations of a fixed link raised, only to be told it was unaffordable.
She was backed by Allan Wishart and Jonathan Wills, councillors for Lerwick North and South respectively, who said a tunnel was unaffordable. Dr Wills said the council was facing an “imminent financial emergency” and should follow the recommendation of officials, while Mr Wishart said it was “totally unfair” on the Whalsay community to “prevaricate” and drag things “on and on and on”.
Shetland Central councillor Andrew Hughson also backed Ms Baisley, saying the uncertainty was “playing with the minds” of Whalsay folk.
However Mr Cooper, the main champion of a tunnel, said he was concerned as to how long the ferries could go on at their current level and he feared a reduced service. The only “realistic option”, he said, was a tunnel.
The Norwegians who had shared their expertise with the council, he said, had indicated a tunnel would take seven to nine years to achieve. He knew no finance would be available for the next five years but after that the Scottish government was “up for it”, and it might even lead to four fixed links in the next 20 years. “We’re knocking on an [open] door,” he said. European money might become available then too. “It’s out there to be won.”
Until then, he said, the council needed to be “creative”, and recommended protecting the ferry service with a device, possibly a structure with a hydraulic ramp, to be sited at any of the existing locations as required.
This would be to cover events such as the recent breakdown on the linkspan at Toft which led to cars being unable to use the terminal for nearly a week. He had been “reliably informed”, he said, the existing ferries could last another seven or even 10 years.
The third North Isles councillor, Robert Henderson, also appeared to be in favour of a tunnel, fearing a possible reduction in ferry hours, with some ending as early as 5.30pm. “We need a link to the Mainland for the biggest number of hours. This would be practical with a fixed link.”
Other councillors backed the tunnel option. Gussie Angus said it “didn’t seem so bad a deal”, and Betty Fullerton said she could not face her constituents if she voted for putting money into ferries and started closing schools. The council should “hold its nerve” and opt for tunnels, keeping ferries operational meantime.
South Shetland councillor Allison Duncan said “Whalsay’s future” was a tunnel, and Shetland West councillor Gary Robinson said that to opt for a ferry service was to be in danger of being “short sighted”. “The revenue costs are going to cripple us.” Quoting tunnel expert Andy Sloan, he said “a tunnel would be a hole in the ground for ever”.
However Lerwick North councillor Caroline Miller, although she agreed fixed links were the “way forward”, said that the Whalsay folk wanted a better ferry service immediately, and therefore she backed the North Voe option.