GIVEN the public response last time, if you were feeling charitable you could almost forgive Sumburgh Airport operator Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) for skipping a public consultation on the introduction of car parking charges seven years on.
But if the publicity masterplan second time around was aimed at lessening the inevitable backlash, it is difficult to imagine many more counterproductive strategies.
A measure like this is never going to be popular. But announcing it without consulting public services provider Shetland Islands Council, elected representatives at Lerwick Town Hall and Holyrood or the Sumburgh Airport consultative committee [the clue is in the name] was simply an insult to the community.
Behind the scenes there appears to be legitimate concern about the capacity of the car park, and the length of time some vehicles are left there – though given the volume of workers heading offshore for shift work that may in a lot of cases be unavoidable.
And, granted, most major airports around the world do now charge people for parking. But most major airports around the world are not sited on a remote, wind-battered and fog-prone peninsula over 20 miles from the nearest large town.
If you don’t drive to the airport, you rely on a patchy bus timetable that doesn’t always tie in with flight departures and arrivals, which are also much more prone to delays due to weather or other issues. Or, unless you live nearby, you fork out upwards of £50 for a taxi.
Shetlanders face an extortionately high cost of living in general and already have to spend a fortune travelling on and off the islands.
Passenger numbers at Sumburgh have also increased massively in recent years. That must make it one of the more profitable of HIAL’s operations. Surely means can be found to offer a few more extra parking spaces without clobbering islanders to pay for the installation of pay stations and barriers?
If HIAL thinks implementing these charges is the way to go – and that seems dubious at best – then surely it must have recognised there will be knock-on implications.
Despite Thursday’s statement saying HIAL is “committed to being open and transparent”, its PR operation has now gone to ground, saying it won’t answer further questions ahead of a meeting with the SIC – to initiate dialogue sought by the council – next week.
And HIAL’s management have some serious explaining to do. If people have to fork out £42 to park at Sumburgh while on a fortnight’s holiday, or even a three-figure sum for those working offshore for five or six weeks at a time, the council may well have to look at expanding its bus timetable. Is that viable and affordable? We don’t know. HIAL certainly doesn’t, because it never bothered asking.
Though hindsight clearly wasn’t necessary to envisage the fallout, now that the public are making their feelings plain HIAL would do well to put its plans on hold so that islanders can participate in a proper debate about what, on the face of it, seems an unjust and wrongheaded proposal.
We would urge islanders to sign the petition already circulating in opposition to the charges, and call on Scottish transport and islands minister Humza Yousaf to intervene and ensure there is proper “island-proofing” of this policy.