Councillors have called on officials to “crack on … full steam ahead” with the Fair Isle ferry replacement – amid warnings of “extremely tight” timescales.
Shetland South member Allison Duncan said the £30 million project “cannot fail” as it was crucial for the Fair Isle economy.
He said the community “deserve a new ferry” after the hardship they had faced following the destruction of the old Fair Isle Bird Observatory.
The SIC was awarded £27m in Levelling Up funding in January to replace the ageing Good Shepherd IV and carry out improvements to Fair Isle and Grutness harbours.
However, the scheme’s 2026 deadline means the project must progress at pace or risk losing out on some of the UK government cash.
Development director Neil Grant told the SIC’s full council meeting today (Wednesday) that the deadline was “unrealistically tight” to be met through conventional procurement methods.
Marine engineering team leader Lee Coutts added that it was an “extremely difficult timescale” – though still achievable.
Reports produced for the meeting showed how officials must produce a full business case by the end of the year in order to start the harbour works next March and for the new vessel to enter service by September 2025.
Members and officials highlighted the particular challenges of working in Fair Isle, given the treacherous seas and environmental restrictions.
Finance manager Paul Fraser said there was a “legitimate risk” the council could end up with a “financial burden” at the end of the process.
Several suggested it was unfair of the government to impose such tight restrictions.
Lerwick North and Bressay member Stephen Leask said the it would be “reputationally damaging” for the government to financially penalise the council for failing to meet such challenging deadlines.
He said the council had to move forward and “get on with the work” to avoid the project becoming the councils HS2 – the much delayed high speed rail project.
Mr Duncan said he was “very concerned” by the timescales, particularly given the recent weather-related delays to have set back the new bird observatory.
While all the modules have now arrived in Fair Isle, they were delayed by many months after numerous crossings from Orkney had to be abandoned because of the sea conditions.
Mr Duncan called for a meeting with Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael to push for an extension to the deadline, should it become necessary.
Alex Armitage, who also represents Shetland South, agreed Mr Carmichael’s help should be sought for the “worst case scenario”.
Having visited Fair Isle at the weekend, Dr Armitage said he had been able to experience the rough seas first hand – as well as the “palpable excitement” of the local folk in getting the new ferry.
Bryan Peterson, another Shetland South member, said the project had been “a long time coming”, saying he had many conversations about the ferry with his Fair Isle friends, ever since he was a teenager.
“So let’s crack on with this,” he added.
ZetTrans chairwoman Moraig Lyall also called for officials to keep the pace up – and not become distracted by the risks of over-running.
She said there were already “many hoops to be jumped through” before work on the ground gets under way next March.
“So a diversion of trying to mitigate this, that and the next thing, I think could end up being almost a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said.
“So please, while keeping half an eye on that, let’s keep the focusing on delivering on the project and not have it lost, even at this early stage, by talking ourselves into over-running.”
North Isles member Ryan Thomson said once the ferry was in place the council could focus on the other “significant capital projects that Shetland desperately needs”.
“There is no reward without risk, so full steam ahead,” he added.
Members agreed to award officials delegated authority to carry out procurement and tendering to complete the full business case.
The project team is exploring a more streamlined procurement routes called a “framework agreement” to help meet the tight deadlines.