Joined-up plan is needed (John Tulloch)

The Whalsay fish factory closed in 2012 with ferry cuts cited by locals as a prime cause. Symbister Harbour and Whalsay’s ferries are deteriorating and need upgrading.

Skerries is in crisis following a three-year population implosion of more than 50 per cent. The local salmon farm and associated factory have closed, along with the secondary and primary schools and the fire service. Investment is urgently needed to improve the key factors, employment, education, and transport links.

Skerries ferries currently run to Symbister, Vidlin and Lerwick, some of the longest trips in Shetland. Efficient transport links between Skerries/Whalsay and Whalsay/Mainland will be essential for any plan to revitalise the isles. But how best to achieve it economically?

The SIC is currently considering transport options including fixed links, attracting controversy over alleged artificial inflation of tunnel estimates.

Community councils have carried out extensive investigations, obtaining quotes and detailed information from Norwegian experts and the SIC which, in Whalsay’s case, indicate £11 million could be saved by investing in a road tunnel instead of new ferries and associated infrastructure.

A further, ongoing saving of £3 million per year is anticipated due to the lower cost of tunnel operation, cumulatively saving a further £90 million over a 30-year ferry lifecycle. However, tunnels last over 100 years so the savings are repeated.

Actual tunnel construction costs in Faroe appear to support the residents’ case, suggesting a major transformation of islanders’ lifestyles is not only possible, but could be a serious money spinner for the SIC/Scottish government.

Extending Symbister’s dilapidated harbour, currently too small to accommodate the local fleet, would facilitate construction of the proposed “state-of-the-art” fish factory that would bring up to 50 skilled jobs and £2 million per year income for the SIC.

However, the proposal was summarily rejected by the SIC development committee last January, based on minimal information, including a “ball park” cost estimate of £20-40 million which was, again, disputed by well-informed islanders.

Comparison with similar, larger harbour works at Lerwick (over three times the size and costing £16 million), suggests the Whalsay development could be built for under £10 million, half the lower SIC figure.

Taking the median anticipated income of £1.5 million per annum, would give SIC a return on investment of 15 per cent a year and a simple payback of about seven years, as opposed to the “20+ years” claimed in the council report.

Setting aside the disputed costs, the emerging crisis in Skerries and the UK “Brexit” vote themselves suggest the decision to reject the harbour development needs urgent review.

The £11 million saved by opting for a tunnel instead of refurbishing the ferry service could, alone, cover the cost of the harbour upgrade.

Furthermore, tunnel works would produce rock spoil that could be used for harbour construction, providing substantial savings for both projects, as disposal of spoil is itself costly. All of which would increase SIC’s profit from its investment.

Given such a tunnel, it would be logical to use some of the savings to improve the Skerries ferry service by taking a more efficient, direct route to Whalsay and on to the Mainland via the tunnel.

Using a smaller vessel and cutting the Vidlin and Lerwick services would provide substantial savings, enabling a more regular, timely service to Whalsay with easy access to the Mainland. Skerries, Whalsay and Mainland people would then be able to commute to/from where they live for work, education or recreational pursuits, as desired.

Thus the three key improvement areas identified above, employment, education and transport links, would be addressed and the council/Scottish government would be many millions better off.

Assuming the islanders’ cost estimates stand up to scrutiny, this seems a “no-brainer”, so why don’t we just get on with it?

Whether the political will exists is debatable, as will be the question of who will pay, SIC or the Scottish government? Failure from such inaction would be inexcusable, a damning indictment of our dysfunctional political system.

SIC leaders have been to Faroe and report seeing a “world class”, self-governing country, where road tunnels pass under mountains, fjords and sounds (19 tunnels, totalling 40km), where high quality broadband and mobile communications are universal. The Faroese have “made the jump to hyperspace”, effectively, riding a time warp into the mid-21st century.

We are decades behind and as long as Shetland’s local powers continue to be eroded, we shall never catch up. We shall fall farther behind.

Faroese prime minister Aksell Johanneson was quoted as saying: “We built our first tunnel in 1963, and today … most of our islands and villages (are) connected with tunnels. This has proven to be important for the development of the small communities. Building tunnels is … about investing in people and in the future of our communities.”

This is the attitude needed to lead a successful, remote island community. May we see some of it here please?

John Tulloch


Add Your Comment
  • Shuard Manson

    • October 11th, 2016 2:32

    Du’s da man.

  • Alan Skinner

    • October 11th, 2016 13:32

    I agree entirely with Mr Tulloch. A clear vision, and a coherent strategy, need to be developed urgently. The Lerwick Town Council needs to become the Shetland Islands Council again.

  • Damien Ristori

    • October 19th, 2016 14:10

    Shetland needs its tunnels as does Orkney & the Western Isles.

    I can’t see no reason why all three island groups and its elected leaders don’t join together and make a proper strong & valid case for getting the tunnels properly investigated.

    Tunnels are the way forward so whats the problem here?

  • John Tulloch

    • October 22nd, 2016 11:15

    SIC is planning to transfer its inter-island ferries responsibility to the Scottish Government (SG). Some oppose the “unnecessary centralisation”, others think it positive. Let’s consider the Scottish government’s conditions for accepting it which include (edited for simplicity):

    1. Ownership of associated ports and harbour infrastructure will pass to the SG “as necessary”.
    2. The SG will only fund services THEY consider necessary.
    3. SIC will lose capital and revenue funding they receive to install and run the ferries and pay for any extra, over what “SG considers necessary”.
    4. If SIC wants to retain a say in service provision, the SG expects them to pay, accordingly.
    5. RET will not necessarily apply to services transferred to the SG

    I understand SIC subsidises ferries by several £million/year extra, above funding received from the SG which, presumably, pays for “unnecessary” provision and “low” fares. When the SG takes over, SOMEBODY will have to pay for the extra provision or it will be cut and fares will likely rise.

    Perhaps, the SIC expects some special concession we have yet to hear about? Let’s hope so.

    • Ray Purchase

      • October 22nd, 2016 18:27

      John do you have any evidence of this? A link to a 5 year old draft report on ferries to the Western Isles doesn’t count by the way.

    • Gary Robinson

      • October 23rd, 2016 13:11

      Oh dear John. Behind the times again. You’d have done well to have read down to the bottom where it says “Publication Date:
      Wed 19/Dec/2012”.

      This document pre-dates all of the OIOF work and it’s fair to say things have moved on considerably since then.

      Shetland Islands Council has no plan to transfer ownership and responsibility to the Scottish Government, that is a figment of your imagination. The work we’ve been engaged in for some time now is aimed at getting the Scottish Government to fully fund our island links as they do elsewhere. This work is nearing its conclusion.

      I believe the current ferry services are in line with the level of service that should be provided with only a handful falling my above or below that standard. These are being looked at currently as part of the ongoing work.

      Having said that, we are seeking for the Scottish Government to underwrite the capital cost of any replacement island links in whatever format they might take.

      I could go through your comments point by point but this scaremongering is so far off the mark as not to warrant that.

      • John Tulloch

        • October 24th, 2016 8:46


        Most people outside your OIOF cocoon may well be “behind the times” – assuming OIOF has any tangible developments to report, that is?

        The document I linked is live on the Scottish government’s (SG) website. They seem unaware of any changes? Perhaps, they are “behind the times”, too?

        No, it’s you and the SIC who are way behind the times. The Faroese installed their first road tunnel over 50 years ago and now have 19 (41km) with another 6 (46km) in development.

        In 2010 you described building of new ferries/infrastructure as “short termism of the worst kind”. Yet, in your fifth year as SIC leader – zero progress – you are “kicking fixed links into the long grass” of national policy and SOMEBODY will soon be forced to splash out on yet more “short termism of the worst kind”.

        You claim you haven’t the financial/technical resources for fixed links yet one of this council’s first acts was to cancel expert Norwegian input and their offer of cheap finance. Why?

        The livelihoods and lifestyles of 3000 people depend on transport links and you are presiding over this debacle. As leader, the buck stops with you.

      • John Tulloch

        • October 24th, 2016 12:21

        Gary, from your reply:

        “The (transport negotiations) work… is aimed at getting the Scottish Government to fully fund our island links….” and “SIC has no plan to transfer ownership and responsibility to the Scottish government”.

        If I understand you correctly, then:

        * SIC will not transfer ownership of any ferry assets to SG;
        * SIC will retain all current decision-making powers;
        * SG will fully fund our inter-island ferry services with no reduction in service, at no cost to SIC.

        How much does SIC pay in annual ferry subsidies, over and above money received from the SG and why is that necessary?

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