The SIC should consider removing ferry fares for Bressay residents travelling to and from Lerwick to help regenerate the island, according to a senior councillor.
Lerwick North member Allan Wishart, who chairs local transport partnership ZetTrans, made the suggestion as councillors agreed that a consultation on shutting the island’s primary school should kick off at the end of this month.
The school has been brought to the brink of closure after the pupil roll collapsed from around 40 to just four in the last decade.
Nearly three quarters of parents who have school-aged offspring are taking them to Lerwick or elsewhere for primary education.
“Bressay’s problem is that it’s too near Lerwick,” Mr Wishart said. “While there’s been money lavished on other islands, and rightly so – airports, secondary school, health centres, leisure centres, Bressay has been largely neglected.
“Bressay is neither an island nor a suburb of Lerwick; it’s somewhere in between. In the longer term we have to have a fixed link [tunnel] there, and in the meantime I think we should have a look at no fares for Bressay residents.”
Mr Wishart’s comments, during Wednesday afternoon’s full council meeting, led to a rebuke from South Mainland member Allison Duncan.
“Free travel for the people of Bressay?” Mr Duncan asked. “I was of the opinion that he [Mr Wishart] wants to make savings and balance the budget. That doesn’t appear to be the case from that statement.”
Afterwards, Mr Wishart told this newspaper that the cost would have to be covered by charging tourists and visitors more to use the route.
But another South Mainland councillor, Billy Fox, said it was just as expensive for someone to drive in from the West Side. He described the Bressay ferry as “probably the only sustainable park-and-ride service we have in Shetland!”
During Wednesday morning’s education and family committee meeting, children’s services director Helen Budge said there was enough room in Bell’s Brae and Sound primaries to absorb the Bressay kids.
She said education officials did not believe a primary with only four pupils was the best educational option. Bressay is viewed differently from other islands because it is possible for children there to live at home and travel to school in Lerwick daily – not an option open for residents of more remote islands.
Councillors agreed that, should the closure go ahead, it would make sense to maintain the school buildings so it could be reopened if demand recovers sufficiently.
Lerwick North member Michael Stout, who lives in Bressay, feels it is a “sad situation”. He said the prospective closure was merely a symptom of deeper issues the 400-strong community faces.
Mr Stout said that, while most islanders accepted there was little option other than closure in the short term, there was a “clear hope” the situation could be addressed.
“It would only take two or three families coming into Bressay,” he said, “and we could potentially have a healthier school roll.”
Councillor George Smith said it was important to look at the wider implications of a situation where an island community was “admitting some sort of freefall, maybe, in terms of retaining its population”.
When education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart visited the school – with Scottish education minister Mike Russell in tow – last summer, she witnessed “a thriving school involved in an exciting project on shipwrecks”.
Twelve months on, it was “with a heavy heart” that Ms Wishart backed the move to proceed with a statutory consultation. If closure goes ahead, it is expected that primary and nursery kids will begin attending Bell’s Brae from August 2014.
Councillors agreed to delay the consultation’s start date from 23rd to 30th September. That will give more time, in Davie Sandison’s words, to “further explore why things are not really working in this community”.
A workshop, involving community work officer June Porter, is to take place. Its aim is to see what can be done to attract new – particularly young – families.
But councillor Alastair Cooper said members should be wary of creating an expectation that the community could be turned around in a couple of months.
* Full story in this week’s Shetland Times.