A number of public meetings have been held this week to discuss the future of inter-island transport links.
The drop-in sessions are part of a consultation by Shetland Islands Council and ZetTrans in their ongoing work to secure long-term funding for transport links within Shetland.
Meetings have been held during the week in Whalsay, Bressay, Foula, Fair Isle and Yell. Two additional sessions have been organised for next week: one in Unst on Tuesday 6th September, from 4-8pm in the Baltasound Hall, and one in the Fetlar Hall on Thursday 8th September, from 6.30pm-8.45pm.
The event due to take place in Skerries yesterday (Friday) was postponed and will be rescheduled. An online consultation will also run until Monday, 19th September.
Public responses to the consultation will be used to inform the Scottish government, as they consider future funding of the inter-island transport links.
At a meeting of the environment and transport committee on Monday chairman Michael Stout said that islands minister Humza Yousaf had expressed a “clear commitment to fairer fares” for internal ferries.
Mr Stout, who is also the chairman of ZetTrans, said that this made the consultation particularly timely because the council had the “political backing” of the government.
At the same meeting director of development services Neil Grant said that a “downturn” in passengers using the internal links last year “does not look to have been continued”.
In 2013 the total number of ferry passengers for the year was 786,540. In 2014 this slumped to 768,661 and in 2015 this number fell again, to 741,902.
During the first six months of 2016, numbers appear to be on the up again.
With political backing and increased usage the council now hope to progress the study to its conclusion, with final reporting due in October.
Speaking ahead of the week of consultations Mr Stout said: “We are now at a critical stage in an extensive piece of work with Transport Scotland to plan for the next 30 years of inter-island transport in Shetland.
“We’ve gathered a huge amount of information from communities in recent years, which, along with feedback from these events, will be crucial to the proposals put forward to the Scottish government on future funding and provision.”
He added: “I would encourage as many folk as possible to come along to one of the sessions, or complete the online questionnaire, to give us their views.”
Whalsay community council vice chairman Brian Marshall, speaking after the meeting on the Bonnie Isle, said: “I think the meeting was useful to an extent.
“But I don’t think there was enough information presented on ferries and linkspans for example.”
Mr Marshall said he favoured the fixed link option for Whalsay and felt information relating to such a project was conspicuous by its absence.
But he added that he understood that this would be an expensive option, especially given that ferries would have to operate in the interim period.
He said: “We’ve been told that the price of fixed links would cost more than two ferry cycles.”
Mr Marshall added that there were concerns in Whalsay about the unreliable and ageing fleet, which has been hindered by a number of problems in recent years.
Another concern for Whalsay residents is that the isle is lumped in with the North Isles by the Boundary Commission and does not have a single local councillor.
He said: “I think it’s a shame that we don’t have a dedicated councillor.”
He noted that Steven Coutts and Robert Henderson do regularly attend Whalsay Community Council meetings to hear local concerns and pointed out the irony that Gary Cleaver, an Unst resident, is often unable to attend because of the ferry timetable.
Mr Marshall’s wife Linda said that she her main concerns were about the “social, educational and medical” impact of a reduced ferry service.
Mrs Marshall also favoured a fixed link which she felt would mean savings for the council in the long term.
She added: “We’ve chosen to live here, but I don’t see why we should be penalised for that.”
The meetings also come during a week in which a Yell resident took issue with the timing of Mainland events and how they impact residents who must catch ferry connections. Stuart Hannay said that he was forced to miss the tail end of the Richard Hawley concert at Mareel owing to the timing of the concert against the timing of the last ferry to Yell. (See this week’s Shetland Times’ readers views.)