Bressay and Whalsay are being lined up as the first islands to benefit from having a subsea tunnel connecting their communities to the Shetland mainland, subject to councillors backing the findings of a new report tomorrow.
An economic impact study, carried out by Inverness-based economic consultants Reference, estimates a basic capital cost of £26 million for a tunnel across Lerwick Harbour to Bressay.
A lengthier tunnel or other fixed link to Whalsay comes with a ballpark price tag of £86 million. The high cost of tunnels means it is likely to be several years before either project happens.
Council transport manager Michael Craigie said members of the development committee, which meets on Thursday morning, were being asked to authorise more detailed investigations of tunnels to Bressay and Whalsay. The other islands which stand to get similar fixed links in the longer term are Unst and Yell.
Mr Craigie said a fixed links steering group had concluded the most pressing priorities were Whalsay and Bressay. There is high demand for the Bonnie Isle’s ferry service and its terminals need upgraded soon. In Bressay’s case, there is scope for making big savings by not having to fund a ferry doing the five-minute shuttle to and from Lerwick.
ZetTrans chairman Allan Wishart, whose Lerwick North constituency includes Bressay, said there were very good practical reasons why it should come first. Should a tunnel be built, it will be the first of its kind anywhere in Scotland. Mr Wishart believes it would make sense from an engineering perspective to experiment on a “very short route in relatively sheltered waters”.
Bressay residents, he pointed out, do not benefit from many of the on-tap public services other islands do, but still have to pay the same ferry fares. “When Bressay residents want to come across for medical appointments, secondary school, leisure pursuits, entertainment, they have to get on that ferry – in other islands that’s taken for granted as local,” he said.
In Whalsay’s case, the existing ferry terminals are nearing the end of their shelf life and Mr Wishart said it was vital the council didn’t inhibit the island’s chances of economic growth.
Although the SIC’s agreed policy is to build four subsea tunnels, the prospect of public funding any time soon is uncertain at best. Not including contingencies, the construction of all four is estimated to come to over £230 million – a Yell Sound link costing in excess of £80 million and a connection across the shorter Bluemull Sound between Gutcher and Belmont requiring a potential £46 million outlay.
Mr Wishart said the next key step was to secure the Scottish government’s support for the principle, which would assist in pursuing money from elsewhere, chiefly the EU. Talks were held when transport minister Keith Brown visited the islands earlier this month.
Gauging what support the council can expect from Europe and Edinburgh will determine how big a funding gap it needs to plug, Mr Craigie said. After that other funding models, such as user tolls and borrowing money to build the infrastructure will be examined.
His report to councillors states: “[Mr Brown] made it clear that capital funding at the national level is one of the most severely hit budget areas and that any significant capital funding support in the next few years is unlikely. However he did agree that support at the European level can be explored and that he would welcome a paper from Shetland Islands Council describing our strategy and case for support.”
Reference’s study says the overall economic impact of building fixed links would be “generally modest”. In Bressay’s case, however, it could transform the island from “what is an essentially rural community to a much more populous one” which is “more akin to other areas close to Lerwick”.
For Unst, Whalsay and Yell, the links would be expected to “generate an initial increase in population, followed by a reversion to trend”. One of the chief impacts might be to swell the number of people commuting to work on the mainland.
Though by becoming physically connected to the mainland they would no longer be islands, the study expects that each would “retain its own identity, given their historic status as islands”. The consultants give the examples of Burra and Trondra, given bridges in the early 1970s, and other cases where fixed links have been built outside of Shetland.
The study says that, though there would be job losses if ferry services are no longer needed, those could be offset by a boost to economic activity. That would rely on those finding themselves out of work “mostly being able to find work on mainland Shetland, rather than relying on getting other jobs on the island where they live”.