Shetland Islands Council is to take on a senior manager to push ahead with its £300 million plan for four subsea tunnels to the main islands over the next 20 years. However, councillor Frank Robertson, who spent his career in council building projects, warned that the long lead-in time for major works meant it could be 20 years before the first tunnel can even be delivered for Whalsay.
The infrastructure committee today agreed on the casting vote of chairwoman Iris Hawkins to spend £50,000 a year on the new post, although councillors insisted that due to spending curbs the money must be found from savings instead of costing the local authority extra.
The need for a dedicated manager has been identified by a working group of councillors and officials looking into the practicalities of digging and financing tunnels for Unst, Whalsay, Bressay and Yell. One of the manager’s jobs will be to help decide what order the tunnels should be built in.
Councillors voted in June not to build new ferries and terminals for Whalsay and instead to wait a few years in the hope that grants for fixed links will become available from the European Union and Scottish government, once economic conditions improve. No external funding is anticipated before 2015.
The decision means that the existing ferries and terminals, particularly on the Whalsay service, will have to last a lot longer than previously envisaged. A full investigation of their structural condition is to be undertaken by an independent consulting engineer to assess the amount of work to be done and how much it will cost the council. A study is also being done with a view to tackling the growing crisis on the Whalsay route which cannot cope with traffic at peak times.
The need for an upgraded service was again highlighted by councillor Josie Simpson who lives in the isle. Describing the situation as “very dire”, he said that morning there had been a man who had to make three attempts to get his car on a ferry from Symbister before he was able to get out to his work.
Mr Simpson had deep doubts about the likelihood of finding £300 million for Shetland tunnels in the coming years while the islands needs were not met in the meantime. “I’m very, very worried that Whalsay is going to suffer,” he said.
Laura Baisley reminded members that it was their decision which had prevented Whalsay getting its new ferry and terminals earlier in the year and meant the island was now being slowly strangled. She said some members would rather see Whalsay depopulated than getting money for a new ferry. Perhaps they should spend the £50,000 on looking at how to accommodate isles folk in the Mainland, she said, because it seemed members no longer wanted to support ferry-dependent communities.
But councillor Gary Robinson said a new ferry and terminals would be “short-termism of the worst kind”. Fixed links were the only viable option for the future and the council had to show potential funding bodies it was serious about them. “We must press on with this for the sake of Whalsay and the other isles.”
He defeated Rick Nickerson who said the council was jumping the gun and should wait until the working group reports back on the likelihood of success in raising the millions needed to fund tunnels.