HIAL £48m plan to remove island jobs

The Scottish Government has put a £48 million price on the fiercely contested plans by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd to remove air traffic control jobs from island locations, including Stornoway and Benbecula.

When the project was first mooted in 2018, the cost was put at £25 million and it is the first time the updated figure – itself already out of date – has been admitted to. The figure has emerged from a letter written by a Scottish Government civil servant to air traffic controllers in Dundee who had sought a meeting with Transport Minister Graeme Dey. The reply came from “Michael Bratcher, Aviation Policy”.

Mr Bratcher wrote: “While I am aware that various numbers have been quoted at different points, there has been only one approved budget. That is £48.4 million and was approved by Transport Scotland’s Investment Decision Making Board in December 2019”.

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Union sources believe even this figure will be well below the reality as the project has run into repeated difficulties and its “deliverablity” was seriously questioned in an internal Scottish Government assessment.

Mr Bratcher writes: “HIAL have always been conscious of the potential impacts that the project will have on the staff affected and their families. Through engagement with their staff, trade union representatives and other stakeholders, HIAL are doing everything possible to mitigate the impact of posts moving to Inverness”.

The civil servant states on behalf of SNP ministers – who have refused to meet with the air traffic controllers or their representatives: “We are satisfied that HIAL have taken their decisions based on the best available information and analysis of the different options available”.

However, a union source said that Mr Bratcher’s letter was “a series of misrepresentations which only confirms that they have swallowed HIAL’s story hook, line and sinker without talking to anyone else.

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“Every one of the points he makes in support of the project could be rebutted if they had the courage to meet the people who know the operational realities and the alternatives that could be adopted”.

The managing director of HIAL, former Stagecoach bus manager Inglis Lyon, visited Stornoway on Tuesday and met with representatives of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar to discuss a range of issues including the air traffic control plans, to which the council remains strongly opposed.

It is understood that the chairman of the transport committee, Uisdean Robertson, presented other options and obtained an assurance that these would be considered.

Comhairle leader, Roddie MacKay, said: “If they are going to spend £50 million on an expensive, sophisticated system that does not at the moment seem to be needed, they have to demonstrate why it is necessary or even preferable to building on what we have at present.

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“We have repeatedly asked them to explain but it always come back to their board having had an away day and ruled out other options. They haven’t given us the evidence – only the conclusion so no wonder people continue to ask why this is being done and is there not another way?’

When he was in Stornoway recently, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar visited the control tower and met air traffic controllers. He then wrote to the First Minister expressing concerns about HIAL’s plans and asking her to order Ministers intervene. He has not yet received a reply.

Mr Sarwar voiced widely shared concerns that the existing operations are being starved of investment in order to strengthen HIAL’s case for transferring their remit to Inverness.

All MPs and MSPs representing affected constituencies, including SNP ones who are not Ministers, have come out against the HIAL plans. This week, the Green “list” MSP for the Highlands and Islands, Ariane Burgess, confirmed that she remained opposed to the plans though the Gazette received no confirmation of their official position from the Scottish Green Party, who are now part of the SNP administration.