The council’s apparent refusal to accept Norwegian funding for a tunnel from the Mainland to Whalsay was aired at Saturday’s biannual meeting of the Association of Shetland Community Councils.
Following a robust exchange of views, the question of fixed links to Whalsay and other islands is likely be back on the agenda for the next meeting of the association.
The SIC’s current position was discussed at Saturday’s session, held in Shetland Museum’s auditorium, following the submission by Whalsay representative William Polson of a freedom of information request relating to the issue.
Part of Mr Polson’s FOI request relates to proposed costs for the project, which he said was the preferred option of the Whalsay folk over ferries.
He wanted to know why, after a Norwegian company had estimated the rise of tunnelling costs to be between six and 10 per cent between 2002 and 2004, the SIC’s proposed costs had increased by 40 per cent and 80 per cent during that period and more than doubled again by 2008.
The FOI request also refers to discrepancies over the length of the Whalsay tunnel, previously put at 5.7 kilometres (between Fora Dale on the Mainland to Marrister in the isle) but later quoted by a council official as 7.1km.
Mr Polson told the meeting that a Norweigian export finance company could have been prepared to invest up to 85 per cent in the cost of a Whalsay tunnel, but the council had not been willing to take the offer any further.
Tunnels and/or bridges to Whalsay, Yell, Unst and Bressay have been seriously considered by various councils since the start of this century. The high cost of construction is believed by many to be a cheaper option in the long run than continuing to run ferries at ever-increasing prices.
As far back as 2001 the SIC heard from Eivind Grøv, a civil engineer from Norway where over 20 sub-sea tunnels had been constructed in the preceding 20 years.
At that time a tunnel just under six kilometres (roughly four miles) was likely to cost just over £20 million.
In August 2004, in its “Islands Links” strategy, the council again explored the idea of tunnels. A report put the cost at between £55 and £60 million for a tunnel to Whalsay, between £30 and £36 million for a tunnel to Yell and between £18 and £22 million for one between Yell and Unst.
On the question of the Bressay link, the report stated that a bridge had been the aspiration of Shetland Islands Council for 30 years. A project was said to be “currently progressing through the various consents processes” with detailed design to commence soon.
In June 2010 the SIC decided to patch up the ailing Whalsay ferry infrastructure in the hope that external funding became available in the future for fixed links to all the large islands.
Councillors voted 11-10 to reject the advice of then head of finance Graham Johnston who had recommended spending £26.2 million on building a new terminal at North Voe in Symbister, improving the terminals at Laxo and Vidlin and acquiring a new ferry for the route.
That was despite Mr Johnston’s proposal being the third of the price of a tunnel, believed to be around £83 million. There was expected to be no Scottish government or European funding available fur such a project before at least 2015.
Later in 2010 it was agreed to spend £50,000 a year to hire a senior manager to push ahead with the plan for four tunnels to the main islands. The capital cost then was reported to be in the region of £300 million.
At that time councillor Gary Robinson, now the SIC’s political leader, described building new ferries and terminals as “short-termism of the worst kind”. Fixed links were the only viable option for the future and the council had to show potential funding bodies it was serious about them, he said.
“We must press on with this for the sake of Whalsay and the other isles,” Mr Robinson said in 2010.
Two years later, after a vote showed that the majority of Whalsay residents would prefer a tunnel rather than continuing with ferries, island representatives were engaged in dialogue with Norwegian consultants.
It emerged that an export finance company, run by the Norwegian government, would be willing to invest around £40 million in a Whalsay tunnel, about 85 per cent of the cost at 2012 Norwegian prices.
The SIC was aware of the offer but chose not to pursue it further, apparently because of a lack of clarity over what was actually on the table.
Mr Polson told Saturday’s meeting that he wanted to acknowledge the history that had gone on over the years, particularly in relation to Yell Sound.
He said: “Nearly £100 million has been spent on Yell Sound [ferries]. I’m not wanting to see that spent on Whalsay. I’m not happy with the way it’s been dealt with by the SIC.”
Chairman of the council’s environment and transport committee, Michael Stout, who recently attended a meeting in Whalsay on fixed links, but was not an SIC member in 2010, wanted to know whether Mr Polson was representing Whalsay Community Council. His own understanding was that the community council was satisfied with the SIC’s position.
“Yes I am,” replied Mr Polson. “This is the view of the Whalsay Community Council. They are not happy with it.”
Chairman Jim Gear asked Mr Stout: “So the members that attended the meeting said they were satisfied?”
“So I believe,” replied Mr Stout.
“The Whalsay Community Council has a freedom of information request in just now,” Mr Polson said. “In that respect the Whalsay Community Council can’t be satisfied.”
Bressay representative Jim Shepherd asked what the “pecking order” was for fixed links. It was years since Bressay was supposed to be the first and then the project was pulled.
The process had been discussed at length, Mr Stout said, in order to get Scottish government approval for a particular link. If there were still concerns about the process “we would be happy to hear them”.
Mr Stout said speaking about a “pecking order” was not the best way to look at it. In the past there had been an “ad hoc” approach taken.
“What’s very clear is that there are a very wide range of costings,” he said.
“Therefore things like the pecking order becomes very important to Bressay.
“We are miles away from a formal decision, [but] I’m confident that the process we have gone through has been competent and has got it to the place we are now.”
Mr Polson was not impressed, however, and repeated his belief that the council had gone down the wrong road over the issue.
He said: “It seems to be forgotten that the council voted for fixed links and the Whalsay public also voted to pursue fixed links.”
It needed to be seen “in terms of national infrastructure,” Mr Stout replied.
Mr Polson said there had been an offer from the Norwegian government to fund 85 per cent of the cost of a Whalsay link, but the council had turned it down.
It had not been clear what the offer was, Mr Stout suggested.
“It was quite clear,” Mr Polson retorted. “The council was to pay 15 per cent.”
Chairman Jim Gear suggested that if Whalsay Community Council members wanted to put the matter back on the agenda for the next meeting they should do so.