Both the Isles MP, Angus Macneil and Isles MSP, Alasdair Allan have condemned a Comhairle nan Eilean Siar move to scrap the subsidy and effectively end the inter island Barra to Benbecula air service.
The SNP duo have been taken aback by the recommendation of the Transportation Committee who voted on the issue as part of tough new budget strictures.
Afterwards, Mr Macneil said: ““Together with my colleague Alasdair Allan MSP I am stunned that the Comhairle could seriously consider such a retrograde step in Hebridean transportation. As a regular user of the service I know that it is needed.
“I know that people use it to go to hospital and others use it to get to Glasgow on business, particularly seamen going via Benbecula as the direct Barra – Glasgow flight is often more full than not. Certainly Barra-Glasgow has a higher percentage occupation I would say from experience than any other island scheduled flight.
“Politically, this decision actually makes it very difficult to argue for the Islands needing extra help with transportation from the Scottish Government when the Comhairle’s own transportation committee threatens its most needy island in this way. It may even result in the Scottish Government deducting money from the Comhairle that was given to provide the service, therefore saving precisely nil, but losing a great deal for the island’s economy and for the local community.”
He added that Barra has only three mainland ferries a week in winter and six flights to the mainland, which is by far the least of the three Hebridean island groupings. He hoped the decision would be reversed when it came before the full Council next week.
MSP, Alasdair Allan, was “staggered” by the in principle decision taken by the Transportation Committee of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
He commented: “I understand the financial pressures on the Comhairle, as on the Scottish Government, but the decision reached in the Transport Committee today has serious implications for people in Barra.
“If the full Council proceeds to remove the subsidy for this lifeline route I believe it will be making a grave mistake which people in Barra will not easily forgive. The decision leaves a huge number of unanswered questions which I will now take up with the Comhairle. Not least it does not explain how people in Barra would travel to hospital either in Stornoway or Benbecula, or what the wider implications are for Barra airport.
He pointed out that the Scottish Government has shown its commitment to air services to Barra by entering negotiations with a Canadian firm to replace the two Twin Otter aircraft currently serving the island. But at the same time, the council were now contemplating a serious threat to one of the island’s two air routes.
Added Dr Allan: “We must be careful not to do anything which undermines the viability of Barra Airport, which has recently been voted one of the top ten airports in the world. Not only is the airport essential to the island’s tourist industry, but specifically the route to Benbecula forms an integral part of the spinal route of transport connections within the Western Isles and this has a clear economic importance to the islands.
“I believe that the Comhairle’s Transport convener, SNP councillor Donald Manford, took the right decision in opposing the committee’s decision. I will now be in touch with the Comhairle asking how they intend to proceed, and very strongly making the case for this air route to have a future.”