BUDGET: MP and MSP should stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with Comhairle for islands

The Leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has responded to comments from Western Isles MP Angus Macneil and Alasdair Allan MSP and Scottish Government Minister over the Barra/Benbecula air service.

A statement from the Comhairle today (Friday) said: “The Comhairle currently subsidises the route but is ending the funding because of the requirement for local government cutbacks.

“Local Authority funding has been frozen which means the Comhairle has to find the cost of inflation, some £3.2m over two years. The Comhairle is also faced with a grant reduction from the Scottish Government of £2.1m by 2014/15. These factors make up the bulk of a budget shortfall of £5.5m.

“MP Angus Macneil and MSP Alasdair Allan have both said the Comhairle should continue to fund the £148k Barra/Benebecula service which is mainly used for local authority, health board and tourism purposes. A recent study showed that in 2011 a third of passengers were sightseers, 14% were NHS employees and 4% were Council staff. The subsidy per passenger per one-way trip is £83. Three quarters of seats are flown empty. Passenger numbers on the Sound of Barra ferry are more than 20 times those on the air service. Mr Macneill has claimed the Comhairle has ‘pocketed the cash’ and has a ‘moral duty’ to continue the air service.”

Comhairle Leader Angus Campbell said: “I am extremely disappointed at the comments made by our MP in relation to the budget. The use of the term ‘pocketing the money’ shows a disrespect for the democratic process of local Government. The matter of the air service to Barra cannot be taken in isolation but has to be part of the priorities expressed to us through the budget consultation process and considered against all the other areas of expenditure which have had to take their share of funding cuts. Having had to make £5.5m of savings on top of the £10 million in the past two years meant we had to look at all areas including home care, education and voluntary groups and it is disappointing that our MP has not identified where he would prefer to take that money from which is precisely the task councillors had to do.

“I would ask both Mr Macneil and Dr Allan to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Comhairle to campaign for increased funding for the Western Isles to help deal with these issues rather than turning on their democratically elected local council over individual issues they don’t particularly like. Many of the cuts that had to be made were not things that any of us would want to do and in many cases were done very reluctantly. However councillors stood up to their responsibility and took these difficult decisions and I would suggest Mr Macneil has a moral duty to recognise that fact.”