A major £12 million investment by the Scottish government to help address a faulty runway extension at Sumburgh Airport could bring a halt to the long-running legal row between Shetland Islands Council and Highlands and Islands Airport.
That is the hope of First Minister Alex Salmond who made the announcement after his delayed touch-down at the airport today.
The funding package – £2 million more than the cost of the actual extension – will ensure extensive repairs are carried out to Sumburgh’s east runway by the winter.
Last year a costly legal battle began to unfold when it emerged the runway extension, which was built into the sea in 2006, was prone to erosion and damage in south-easterly gales. The SIC designed and managed the construction of the runway extension by Balfour Beattie.
Mr Salmond said that, while he did not wish to pre-judge the case, he hoped the announcement could lead to an out-of-court settlement.
“Reports we’ve had means the runway extension could be at risk even further from winter storms. We can’t await a settlement in the dispute between HIAL and the council.
“The funding is for up to £12 million – and that is to get the job done, and it will be done this summer.
“I understand from the papers I’ve read that this is a question of sea incursion into the extension which has caused the problem. But, however you value it, the problem needs to be dealt with. So it’s important that we do that.
“We have two public authorities in dispute; you would like to think that a settlement can be reached out-with the courts.”
His announcement came after his flight to the isles was delayed by several hours because of heavy, low-lying mist. Mr Salmond said the hold-up was a “good illustration” of the challenges of travel that islanders have to put up with.
Earlier this year HIAL said it was investigating ways bringing an end to the runway dispute.
Mr Salmond’s announcement came as the first of a string of engagements made during the two-day visit as part of a summer programme of cabinet visits aimed at visiting different parts of the country.
As well as Shetland the cabinet is visiting the Borders, Fraserburgh and Campbeltown.
The First Minister insisted all engagements would be fulfilled despite the delays brought on by the mist.
“Every single engagement will be fulfilled, because every single one is important.”
The visit, of course, comes just over a year before the planned referendum on Scottish independence, which is due to take place in September next year.
Mr Salmond said the appetite for independence was growing. He said research had shown voters became more inclined to vote “yes” once they had become more informed.
He highlighted encouraging results from the Northern Isles during the Scottish elections in 2011.
“It was significant for us that the list vote, the party vote, for the first time ever, except for I think Winnie Ewing’s European election when there was a Highlands and Islands constituency, showed that the SNP were the leading party in Orkney and Shetland taken together.
“That was a big, big breakthrough for us.”
But he was highly critical of the “no” campaign, which he said had been “rumbled” as a “scare-mongering campaign” by The Herald newspaper.
“Their blunder is in allowing themselves to be self-described as a scare-mongering campaign, as ‘project fear’ – this is their own description of themselves.
“That is a mistake of gargantuan proportions because now, quite legitimately, we can point to their statements and say that this is part of what they describe themselves, out of their own mouths, as project fear.
“That is such a mistake, I can’t even think of a mistake of greater proportion than that in politics – well, perhaps the poll tax would be up there.”
* See Friday’s Shetland Times for more on the SNP Cabinet visit.