Bridge Polemic

Every islander has had their travel plans dashed by a ferry cancellation.

These cancellations are largely unpredictable: entire days of travel can be lost due to stormy conditions, faulty ferries or infected sailors. A sense of anxiety looms over every journey as sailings are never guaranteed. It should therefore come as no surprise that many islanders have conceived of many radical solutions to this decades-old dilemma.

A few days ago I stumbled upon a poll organised by Ailsa Gillies on the Bute Community Facebook page, asking users if they would like a bridge to connect Bute to the mainland. The post gathered hundreds of votes and comments, magnitudes more than the typical page submission. Evidently this is a hot-button issue. At the time of writing, those in favour of a bridge amount to 60% of all votes cast. Reading through the pages of voters’ comments makes it clear that their belief in such a bridge lacks foresight, consideration and grounding. Admittedly this is a mere Facebook poll: I should not be expecting the rigour of a peer-reviewed inquiry into the feasibility of a bridge on a community Facebook group catered towards my nan. Though as casual as the poll may be, I believe it can only harm as it implicitly holds the position that such a bridge is even possible, despite such a project being financially and logistically untenable. Reading through the comments of bridge believers shows that many are convinced that the only roadblocks to such a construction are miserly public bodies and a lack of resolve. Any attempt to pose this ludicrous position as just one side of a balanced debate– even for the sake of “journalism” or “fairness”– is insincere and malicious.

This discussion attempts to resurrect itself time and time again like a weed, serving no purpose except to sow unnecessary divisions and discontent within our community. I’m afraid that some of these bridge believers will see this Facebook poll as a mandate for future enquiry, despite its impossibility. To go through these motions is simply a waste of everyone’s time; the bridge is a false hope and chasing such fantasies will only lead to disappointment. Such naive ideas need to be put to rest for good.

To put the issue to rest permanently I’ve compiled a series of core arguments as to why a bridge is not only a financial and logistical nightmare, but also an immensely destructive and dangerous piece of infrastructure not just for Bute but the entirety of the Firth.

***

i. Scale, Cost, Destruction

First, the most obvious issue: distance. The shortest span between Bute and the southern coastline of the firth is approximately 8km*. This is over triple the length of the longest bridge in Scotland, the Queensferry Crossing.

This segues into by far the most important factor: cost. The aforementioned Queensferry Crossing cost the public an estimated £1.35 Billion. Such an expense can be justified when said crossing is used by 80,000 vehicles each day. Even if every single resident of Bute made three trips to and from the mainland every single day this would not even amount to half of Queensferry’s traffic. And remember, we need a bridge triple the length. It would also  need to be very, very tall: sailboats, tankers, even Royal Navy nuclear submarines must be able to sail underneath unimpeded. How many billions will this take? We are an island of six thousand. Even if through some miracle we could keep the cost comparable to that of the Queensferry Crossing, that is still the equivalent expenditure of £225,000 per islander. When opponents of Bute Bridge say that the cost of the endeavour is equivalent to rehousing the entire island population, they really aren’t kidding.

And with these revelations, all serious bridge discourse is concluded. But I am determined to put this issue to rest once and for all, so I will continue to hammer away at the absurdity of such a scheme.

Even if we somehow finance this project, plenty of red tape remains. Such a colossal bridge would create a tremendous eyesore visible not just from Bute, but from everywhere around the Firth. The beautiful, scenic views in this region would now be dominated by an eight kilometre steel and concrete abomination. Don’t pretend that this construction will be pretty; nothing built by the government in the past eighty years has been pretty (please prove me wrong: dneiper@protonmail.com). From Largs to Dunoon, Wemyss to Toward, all will have their pretty views butchered by our bridge. Worse still, they stand to gain absolutely nothing from it.

Sure, a tunnel link would lack the aesthetic damage caused by a bridge. But even the Scottish Government recognises that tunnels generally cost more than bridges. If you can somehow find the additional hundreds of millions– if not billions– required for tunnelling, be my guest. But until then such a solution is simply inarguable.

***

Now readers might think I’m being malicious for misrepresenting the pro-bridge contingent. “No stupid, we’re not looking for a bridge to Wemysss, we are looking for one to Colintraive!” they shout. While this proposal is far more rational and actually financially viable (we are now talking about hundreds of metres, not several kilometres) such a construction is largely redundant in the best case scenario and an active threat to the livelihood of the island in the worst.

First of all, it would require cutting through pages and pages of red tape. Colintraive and Rhubodach are within a National Scenic Area (one of only seven in the Argyll & Bute region) so development of any kind would face tremendous roadblocks from communities, authorities and environmentalists. While we no longer need to worry about the Royal Navy fleet or tankers, this bridge must still allow for the passage of sailboats, meaning the design will have to be elevated and therefore more pronounced. Good luck getting Scottish National Heritage to sign-off on that. We could talk about tunnels again but unless you’re the one forking the money I simply can’t see it squeezing into the budget.

But let’s say that we do manage to get the bridge, despite all the legal and financial setbacks. Who is going to use it? Most people are looking to get to Greenock, Gourock or Glasgow, not Dunoon. Landing at Wemyss Bay immediately places you on the outer edge of the Glasgow commuter belt with immediate access to an A road, hourly trains to Glasgow, and a half-hourly bus heading in the same direction. By comparison, there is only a single bus service to Dunoon from Colintraive. You better not miss your bus either: it only makes the journey twice per day. Sure, the bridge saves you the price of a ferry ticket. But at what cost? An extra two-hour drive to Glasgow along winding countryside roads? At a time where we are so conscious of our carbon emissions it is incredibly irresponsible to incentivise unnecessary car travel.

And that’s only an option if you have a car; good luck getting anywhere from Colintraive if you are too old or too young to drive.

Foot passengers gain nothing from this bridge. That in itself is not inherently bad. The problem lies however with the fact that the bridge will end up affecting how the ferry service operates. With a permanent land connection, the government will have less of a justification for providing ferry subsidies. With less funding ticket prices will inevitably rise. In the absolute worst case scenario the Wemyss Bay ferry may be scrapped altogether. The only reason a Colintraive bridge could work is if it is in conjunction with a Wemyss Bay ferry. But it is unlikely that any government– especially one hell-bent on saving money– could justify the cost of maintenance for both forms of travel. A prohibitively expensive or barebones service to Wemyss will not only cut off those working or at school in the Clyde area, it would also cut-off any prospective non-driving tourists. As such, the bridge may end up reducing tourist numbers.

In January, the Scottish Transport authority published their vision for the next twenty years of Scottish transport infrastructure. Amongst all the idealistic, fanciful ideas a few island bridges were even proposed (equally foolish, but that’s another story). And despite the fantastic, headline-grabbing nature of many of these grand schemes, the authority did not even bother to propose any bridges or tunnels to connect Bute. Even the bureaucrats with an incentive to conjure attractive proposals couldn’t even conceive of anything remotely credible for our island.

With their insight in tow, that really, really should be the end of the matter; by now it should be clear to all but the most possessed that a bridge to Bute is a foolish, short-sighted and selfish endeavour. But if you are still an ardent believer, I will humour you for just a moment by envisioning a fantastical future where such a bridge from Bute to Wemyss bay miraculously secures its funding, receives its planning permission and is built without a hitch.

In such a scenario, what happens next?

***

ii. Bute and the Magical Bridge

Wonderful! God has blessed us with our promised bridge and we can now access the mainland 24/7 with no worry of weather cancellation. Tourists, previously put-off by the prohibitively expensive and restrictive ferry schedules are now heading in droves to Bute instead of Largs for their seaside trips. Business is booming! Better still, now that we have a reliable connection to the mainland our residents can look for better job opportunities in Wemyss Bay, Largs, Greenock, Glasgow, and beyond.

Everything is looking up!

Sooner or later, mainlanders who commute for work realise how much of a bargain Bute property can be. £350 a month for 1-bed flat with a view of the sea? That would cost me hundreds more in Wemyss! What a steal! I only have to deal with an extra ten minutes drive across a bridge!

Within months, as commuters seek out cheaper rent, Bute mutates into a new, affordable appendage of the Glasgow commuter belt. New residents flood in, rents equalise, but no new jobs are created on the island (work and life is still largely on the mainland). Despite no new jobs, new condos and housing estates are built on the cheap land to cater to the growing commuter class.

Summer months are increasingly busy as those that would ordinarily venture to Gourock, Largs and the like now travel to Bute, if only for novelty. Our island’s infrastructure remains unchanged and is largely unable to cope with increased vehicle numbers. The entirety of the A844 is one continuous convoy of tourist transports all looking for the same near-mythical parking spots on sidewalks already littered with vehicles. All this footfall means increased profits for our cafés and restaurants. Hotel revenue on the other hand remains largely unchanged as tourists see the island more as a day-trip location rather than an overnight stay thanks to the bridge.

And there we have it. Should we assess the damage?

If it isn’t obvious to everyone, while the island would see some benefit from additional revenue and cynical real estate development, it would be doing so at the cost of its unique character; we would effectively be pimping ourselves to the whims of the Inverclyde labour and tourism market. We would become like any other town on the southern banks of the Clyde as we find ourselves absorbed into the suburbs of Greater Glasgow.

***

Many Bute bridge cultists compare our own situation to Skye, whose own bridge project ended up providing a boon to their local economy (although not without its own teething problems). However such a comparison is emphatically misguided as the two islands have very distinctive histories and geography. Yes, the Skye bridge brought the island plenty of wealth (but not spread evenly– a story for another day) but along with these riches comes an annual horde of locusts:

We must remember that Skye’s fifteen times the size of Bute but with not even double our population. The place is an uninhabited wasteland. There is space for this horde. Our island certainly does not: Bute is already the third most densely populated island in Scotland. Even modest increases in traffic would create disruption as there is simply no space nor infrastructure to cater to them.

The likes of Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson have written about Skye for centuries. The island has beckoned tourists for as long as tourism has existed. It was already successful long before the bridge; the bridge only raised it to greater heights. To think that the simple addition of our own land link would do the same is the pretence of knowledge.

***

iii. An Alternative Future for Bute

So far I have done nothing but deconstruct the disastrous ideas of others. Hey, at least the believers are trying to offer solutions to Bute’s decline. For nearly a century, us islanders have merely been circling around the fading ruins of a once prosperous isle.

It is important to remember that Bute’s golden age in the late 1800s did not come around by blithely imitating elsewhere. In its heyday, Bute was the trailblazer; other coastal towns were imitating us. If we want a great future for ourselves we must understand and come to terms with our unique heritage and understand how it can fit into the modern world.

Since the turn of the millenium the developed world’s labour market has been caught in an inflection point; a paradigm shift that has changed how, when and where people work. The Covid lockdowns have accelerated this change and drastically altered the face of the office job. Labour has digitised and become remote.

More and more people can work from their own home. So, why not here? Why are we trying so desperately to reach the mainland for jobs when we can make our own homes our office and career space? The online labour market is growing exponentially; as long as you have the basic technical know-how your potential job prospects are only limited to all of cyberspace, not just the west of Glasgow.

Through some spooky voodoo Bute has brilliant yet affordable broadband unlike the bulk of the Highlands. With this stroke of luck, we are in a unique position to offer a quiet coastal Highland lifestyle that can provide all of the tools necessary for an online business to thrive. That’s exactly why I’m here: I myself am a digital entrepreneur. I could have picked anywhere to live, yet I chose here for its quaint vibes, community and wondrous scenery.

If we’re fortunate enough for our own home-grown online businesses to thrive, there is plenty of cheap land and property available for them to expand into and use as offices, co-working spaces, or other entrepreneurial activity. Brownfield sites galore. So many down-on-their-luck properties just waiting for rejuvenation. All I would humbly ask is that they are redeveloped in a way that respects the architectural heritage of the island.

For a sliver of the budget of a bridge, Bute could reorient itself towards this new goal. Little investment is actually needed; all we would really need is advertising. If our darling Marquess or the council was feeling particularly generous, a modest investment in a small co-working space would kickstart this transformation by providing a hub for all prospective digital workers. If budgets are really stretched, our rather anaemic library could also serve this purpose if its opening hours were greatly expanded and more space was provided for business activity (meeting rooms, for example).

Times are changing. If Bute wants to set sail somewhere truly prosperous it must redefine the reality of island life. We have done it before and we shall do it again. There is a reason why The Times voted us the best place in Scotland, despite all of our flaws. Clearly something special is already here. We must harness it correctly and capitalise upon it instead of chasing bridges, a fruitless exercise of delusion.

—Dneiper

* A shorter distance is possible if we want to create a bridge that connects us to the mainland via Greater Cumbrae. Unfortunately we can’t bulldoze our way through their own island without asking. We would also need to ask the Cumbraeans not only “Do you want a bridge to the mainland?” but also “Do you want a bridge to Bute?” I just can’t see that being met with approval.

An interesting quote from the article provided: “What they want is a reliable ferry service, dependable in typical winter weather and has space for everyone who wants to use it in the summer…Rather than distracting us with grandiose plans for 20 years hence, what is really needed is a two to five year plan to fix the chronically dysfunctional and expensive ferry system.” At the very least, I think that this is something that we can all agree on.


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