Shetland is crying out for tunnels to connect island communities. When will SNP government listen? – Alistair Carmichael MP

We live in an age when people no longer attend public meetings. Everyone knows that so when my Scottish Parliament colleague, Beatrice Wishart, and I set off on our “Tunnel Vision” roadshow around the isles of Shetland – Fetlar, Unst, Yell, Whalsay, Bressay and Out Skerries – we went with our expectations well and truly managed.

Using ferries to link nearby islands is an outdated approach to transport (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)
Using ferries to link nearby islands is an outdated approach to transport (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

However, over five days of setting up our stall in village halls and community centres, we had between 200 and 300 people turn up to tell us what they thought the building of fixed links could mean for the future of the island communities that they called home, some by birth, others by choice.

Wherever we went we found communities fizzing with ideas about improving health and social care, education and economic development. In Shetland, the community has moved past a debate about whether we want to see our islands joined by fixed links rather than ferries. The message that comes across loud and clear now is for governments, local and national, to get on and make it happen.

Contrast that experience with the one led by Transport Scotland. They too have turned their mind to the opportunities of fixed links but in a rather different way.

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The Transport Scotland way of doing things involves officials and ministers in Edinburgh working out what they are prepared to offer our island communities. Their conclusions all centre around proposals for the islands on Scotland’s west coast, with one exception – a bridge that they considered building from Gills Bay in Caithness to South Ronaldsay in Orkney.

Yes, you read that correctly: a bridge from Caithness to Orkney.

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It is a textbook example of how not to go about the planning of major infrastructure projects of this sort. Design it all in Edinburgh and take it to the isles and you come up with a plan to spend millions of taxpayer pounds on something nobody is asking for.

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Scotland’s islands have been well served by ferries for centuries, but this summer has illustrated the limitations that they place on our islands and the fragility of the service if it is neglected in the way that the SNP government in Edinburgh has neglected it in their time in office.

The message from the outer isles of Shetland is clear. Using ferries as a means of linking islands that are geographically close is an analogue solution to a digital problem. For them, it is time to move on.

We look with some envy to the north west and see what our cousins in the Faroe Islands have been able to do for their outlying communities by linking them with tunnels. There, the improved transport connectivity has gone side by side with 21st-century digital connectivity to transform their islands.

Given the chance, Scotland’s islands can do the same for themselves. We just need our over-centralised governments to lecture less and listen more.

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Beatrice Wishart and I started our fixed links campaign during the Covid pandemic with an online session attended by more than 200 people. Transport Scotland declined the invitation to join us.

Apparently there was nothing they could learn by listening to a bunch of islanders for a couple of hours. I wish they knew how wrong they were.

Alistair Carmichael is Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland

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