Labour's Rhoda Grant, MSP for Highlands and Islands has written to Audit Scotland

Following a third hearing before the Scottish Government’s petitions committee, Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant has written to Audit Scotland asking them to examine HIAL’s contentious centralisation plans for local Air Traffic Control centres.

Monday, 1st March 2021, 9:33 am
Updated Monday, 1st March 2021, 4:48 pm
HIAL are looking to move to a renote system of ATC in the islands. Image: representative archive image.

A petition from across the Highlands and Islands, including Benbecula Community Council in May 2020 is calling on the Scottish Government to halt HIALs Air Traffic Management Strategy Project until an independent assessment can be undertaken.

Since its initial proposal in 2017, HIAL’s plans to centralise air traffic control in Inverness and provide airports across the Highlands and Islands with a remote version of air traffic control have come under increasing criticism for a lack of transparency or consideration of the risks attached to, along with the attendant costs of the project.

Mrs Grant, who has been supporting campaigners against the scheme since the project was first mooted said: “The representations that HIAL is putting forward to the committee are clearly not in the spirit of transparency or working in the interests of communities.

Stornoway and Benbecula airports would be affected by a new system of ATC

"HIAL is all smoke and mirrors and is relying on a lot of technical speak to cover the fact that this project is not well thought through, not cost effective and is being pushed forward as a matter of stubbornness.

"As soon as you start to pull at the thread of HIAL’s argument it all comes apart.”

Mrs Grant added: “It has also become increasingly clear that HIAL is not willing to properly engage on this matter; with it’s staff; with the communities it is there to serve; and nor, it’s abysmal performance in front of the Petitions Committee would suggest, with the Scottish Government or those trying to exercise accountability.

"So I have now written to Audit Scotland laying out the risk and cost concerns of the project and asking them to step in and compel some actual detail and honesty surrounding the project.

Locals are concerned there would be many more risks associated with a remote ATC

“It is simply not acceptable that a Government agency, one which is there to serve and support our most rural and fragile communities, is being so bull-headed and apparently determined to strip those communities of its lifeline assets at a greater cost than it would take to invest in them, and make no mistake, that’s exactly what this will do.

Mrs Grant Continued: “As well as removing urgently needed jobs, and families who are invested in these communities, the ATMS plans will leave a less resilient lifeline service.

"The damage to the Western Isles sub-sea cable – a vital component in the plan to “live stream” island airports to ATCs in Inverness shows that transmitted data is not 100% reliable and is introducing unnecessary vulnerabilities to the air network in the region.”

A spokesman for Highlands and Islands Airport Limited commented: “HIAL gave MSPs a full, open and accurate explanation of why the Air Traffic Management Strategy is being undertaken as well as clearly explaining that there are no alternative proposals for air traffic services that provide the all-encompassing solution of HIAL’s current strategy.

“For Ms Grant to translate a matter of public record into an allegation of ‘smoke and mirrors’ is poor, at best.

“We explained to Petition Committee members, including Ms Grant, that air traffic management is a very complex and technically challenging environment that requires precision and accuracy and that was reflected in our responses,” they said.

"Nonetheless, we once again continue to extend our invite to Rhoda Grant to meet with us and we will be more than happy to explain in further detail any aspect of the project.”

Islands MSP, Alasdair Allan commented: “It is a matter for Audit Scotland what issues it takes up, rather than for me as a politician to determine.

"My own views are on the record that HIAL need to reconsider their plans, given the impact these will have on island jobs. This is something I have put to HIAL many times.”

In a meeting with Uist Councillors in January, HIAL Management said the removal of ATC from Benbecula is a necessary step due to changing regulatory requirements.

However Prospect Union has confirmed with the CAA that maintaining ATC at Benbecula will still be a viable option in the future.

Commentin, Cllr Iain MacNeil,chairman of Uist Economic Task force said: “I demand that HIAL are open about the real reasons for the decision to downgrade Benbecula Airport.

“This decision itself was made without consultation with staff and no consultation with the communities who depend on the airport services.”

Vanessa Langley, of Benbecula Community Council which petitioned the Scottish Government to suspend their policy said: “Our fragile community depends on the Airport for business, connecting with family, holidays and healthcare such as cancer treatment, pregnancy scans and surgical operations."