A SOVEREIGN wealth fund in the Middle East is showing interest in funding ferry replacement tunnels in Scotland, it has been revealed.

A meeting with the Mubadala group of Abu Dhabi has proved positive, according to SNP MP Angus MacNeil, who is chair of the UK’s International Trade Committee.

He told the Sunday National their involvement could be a “gamechanger”, by providing funding for inter-island fixed links in the Western Isles as well as one to Mull from the mainland.

“They mentioned they were aware there was plenty of opportunities in Scotland in offshore wind and when I told them the Scottish Government was also consulting on inter-island tunnels, they showed immediate interest,” he said. “The deputy chief executive Waleed Al Mokarrab Al Muhairi said ‘that’s it, we are going to Scotland’.”

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A Scottish Government consultation on the draft second Strategic Transport Projects Review, which includes the possibility of fixed links from the mainland to Mull and others connecting Barra to South Uist and Harris to North Uist, ended on Friday.

MacNeil said the project could follow the Faroese model, where ferry replacement tunnels up to 10km long linking islands are paid and financed by pension funds in Canada and sovereign wealth funds elsewhere.

He said that as the tunnels would be a replacement for ferries, they would have fares in the way that ferries do and pointed out that the tunnels in the Faroes were already paying themselves off, with one paid off in 12 years instead of the expected 25. The islands are now building their fourth tunnel which is almost complete, meaning that equipment and expertise would be available shortly, according to MacNeil.

“The tunnels could be priced over 25 years and would be cheaper than the ferries are at the moment, plus they are available all the time regardless of the weather,” he said. “If there was a return on the investment, the finance would come and if the tunnels were priced over 25 years they would be cheaper than building and maintaining ferries.”

The National: Angus MacNeil said it would be a 'gamechanger'Angus MacNeil said it would be a 'gamechanger'

He said this would save the Scottish Government the need for as many ferries with ones that were replaced by tunnels deployed elsewhere, adding that it was time to realise there were other ways to connect some islands than ferries.

“It may be yet that we are able to connect the Hebrides to Skye but you are going to have to start somewhere. There are relatively short crossings over to Mull from the mainland or the Sound of Harris or the Sound of Barra would probably be good intermediate starts for Scotland to make.”

MacNeil pointed out that inter-island tunnels were not new.

“We are in the slow lane in this regard because the Faroe islands, Iceland and Norway have shown what you can do with undersea tunnels,” he said. “These are quite normal elsewhere but in Scotland it is a bit revolutionary. They are not – they are no more revolutionary than the wheel on the road.”

ASKED if the current ferry workers would be unhappy about ferry replacement tunnels, MacNeil said many of them were islanders and would welcome the changes as progress and a way to make the islands more prosperous.

“People need not worry for their jobs as there will be more jobs as a result of the opportunities these tunnels bring and certainly in places where they have built causeways and built tunnels nobody would ever say ‘let’s get the ferry back’,” he said. “No one wants to get rid of the Ballachulish bridge for instance to get the Ballachulish ferry back.”

MacNeil said Mubadala’s interest was a “transformative step” in bringing tunnels to the west coast of Scotland. We now have the Scottish Government taking it seriously in the way the Faroese have done, we have the potential of finances coming and the expertise is already there. Everything seems to be aligning,” he said. “It really feels like a whole gamechanger to have these three pieces together. And Mubadala won’t be the only sovereign wealth fund or pension fund that might be interested in financing tunnels.

“The long and short of their raison d’etre is can they make a return on their investment. The models on the Faroe Islands show you can. It is a win-win situation because locals then have a chance of the connectivity that’s there all the time rather than be at the mercy of the weather or ferries breaking down.

“We can get rid of these problems and the big appeal for government is that gives them extra ferries very quickly.”

Fixed links to the islands are part of a 45-point plan for major upgrades to transport in Scotland over the next two decades but news they have been included in the Scottish Government’s Strategic Transport Projects Review has met a mixed reception.

Mull and Iona Ferry Committee pointed to a survey of islanders two years ago which was overwhelmingly negative.

After receiving 672 responses from a population of around 3200, 60% disagreed with the proposal that “if it were possible, I’d like a tunnel from Mull to Oban”. Only 20% agreed.

Chair Joe Reade said: “Before we start thinking about tunnels under the sea, we need to fix the very urgent and fundamental problems with the ferry service.”

Delays and cancellations caused by bad weather and breakdowns have for years plagued services to the islands run by state-owned CalMac, while two replacement ferries being built on the Clyde are four years late and have more than doubled in price to £240 million.

According to the review analysis, the moves for bridges or tunnels have come as current ferry routes on the Sound of Harris, Sound of Barra and between Craignure on Mull and Oban face a “number of issues and challenges”.

IT says: “Replacing ferry services with fixed link bridges or tunnels can improve reliability, connectivity, capacity and crossing times.

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“A Sound of Harris fixed link would improve connectivity between the Uists and Lewis/Harris while a Sound of Barra fixed link would improve connectivity between Barra and the Uists.

“The provision of these fixed links would allow for the reconfiguration of transport provision between the Outer Hebrides and the mainland.

“The provision of a fixed link between Mull and the Scottish mainland would allow for the reconfiguration of transport provision between the island and the mainland.”

Announcing the review, Transport Secretary Michael Matheson said fixed links could “improve communities’ access to goods and services, making these islands more attractive for people to live and work in and visit”.

Mubadala has been approached for comment.