Ferries, fixed links and funding were once again the hot topics today as the isles’ future connectivity plans were discussed by councillors.
The meeting of the Policy and Resources Committee had six agenda items with the vast majority of the meeting taken up by updates on the ferry replacement program and/or, depending on how you look at it, inter-isle connectivity.
Following a brief presentation by Robert Sinclair, executive manager for assets, commissioning and procurement, councillor Ryan Thomson asked for an update on the timescale of the ferry replacement plan.
Chief executive Maggie Sandison answered, saying: “The work on the two priority ferry replacement projects, which is Fair Isle and Whalsay, has been progressing with Scottish government officials.
“We are continuing to engage around the funding for capital, ferry replacement projects because we secured the revenue funding but have no funding at this stage for capital.
She added: “One of the other areas we are currently looking at is whether the recently announced ‘leveling up’ fund could support some of the infrastructure projects the council currently has underway.”
Fair Isle is the specific focus of the leveling up talks, however, Ms Sandison stated that those talks had not progressed as hoped due to the May election but will be picked up again following parliaments recall.
Allison Duncan asked for clarification on the lack of capital funding asking “does this mean that Fair Isle and Foula will be delayed substationaly.”
Ms Sandison said SIC had been working for many years on the need to invest in a ferry replacement infrastructure with the Scottish government, compiling comprehensive business cases for both.
She added: “We are aware the Scottish government is working on what was a ferry plan but is now being described as an island connectivity plan, so in terms of the government looking at islands and looking at their needs for transport and connection, that is a commitment they are working on.”
It was this slight change of Scottish government emphasis from ferry plan to a connectivity plan that raised alarm bells with some of the committee members.
A matter of semantics it is not, as a focus on connectivity includes long-term fixed links such as tunnels and bridges, the ferry replacement project is, however, a more immediate concern.
Concern was also raised that SIC funds used to outline the merits of a ferry replacement plan would be money down the drain as the government’s focus shifts to fixed links.
Ms Sandison said: “We have been spending money on business cases, we received no government funding. I think the next stage is to establish that our needs will be addressed in terms of funding whatever it is the outline business cases recommends for each island.
“Until we get funding we are spending money on something that may never happen.”
A full report will appear in Friday’s Shetland Times.