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Wishart launches second petition against controversial HIAL plans

A screenshot of the petitions committee meeting on Wednesday morning.

SHETLAND MSP Beatrice Wishart has launched a petition to halt HIAL’s centralisation of air traffic control to Inverness – on the day Scottish transport minister Michael Matheson resisted calls to abandon the plans.

After conducting a survey that revealed 90 per cent of more than 550 respondents were opposed to the move, the Liberal Democrat’s petition calls for the introduction of remote control towers to be “paused” and a “better modernisation programme” for Highlands and Islands Airports [HIAL] to be considered.

It came after members of the Scottish Parliament’s public petitions committee used an appearance from Matheson to highlight a host of misgivings held by island communities.

The plans will result in numerous jobs currently based in Shetland and other remote communities shifting to Inverness.

Wishart said: “The plans by HIAL have been met with legitimate concerns. Despite this HIAL, a company wholly owned by Scottish ministers, has continued ploughing forward with the project.

“The actions by HIAL are tone deaf and this petition aims to amplify the voices of those who are opposed to the project.

“HIAL’s own consultants said the project is both risky and costly, while a report last year from the Prospect Union estimated that £18 million will be taken away from island communities. This project is bad for Shetland and must be paused.”

But the transport secretary defended the plans on the basis that finding a sustainable future for air services in the medium and long term was crucial: failing to do so would “store up problems” and “cessation [of any air services] would have a devastating impact on communities”.

Labour MSP Rhoda Grant urged Matheson to intervene and ask HIAL to closely examine the alternative option of installing radar in control towers.

Orkney’s Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur, meanwhile, said he feared the project’s budget – which Matheson confirmed totals £48.4 million once revenue costs are factored in – will overrun.

So far £6 million of spending has been chalked up, but Matheson’s stance mirrored that of HIAL representatives who last week told the same committee walking away from the plans was “not on our agenda”.

On the budget, Matheson rejected assertions that the project’s costs had spiralled. He voiced frustration that various figures had been “bandied about in the press” that were “wholly inaccurate” and told McArthur and Grant they were “simply wrong” regarding the finances.

A capital sum of £34.7 million and a revenue budget of £13.7 million have been fixed since the project was approved in December 2019, he clarified.

“The project remains on time, due to be completed by 2027 with the rollout across a number of airports over the course of the next couple of years, and it remains within the budget that was set in 2019,” Matheson said.

Asked by committee chairwoman Johann Lamont if he could envisage a scenario where he would not sign off the project, Matheson said ministers ran the risk of “being accused of interfering in the decision-making of public bodies”.

He said consultants Helios had presented their findings to his predecessor, Humza Yousaf, in December 2017 and it was ministers’ responsibility to “offer challenge” at that stage.

Lamont said she felt the plans ran “entirely counter” to the Scottish Government’s strategy of sustaining good quality jobs in remote and island communities.

Grant said it seemed communities had been “given a take it or leave it option” that would do “untold economic damage to the islands”.

She highlighted fears over the resilience of the service in the event of technological hitches and pointed out many staff were unlikely to be willing and able to relocate or commute to Inverness.

“We truly believe it is the wrong process, it won’t provide the resilience that is required and it will have an impact on our island communities that you won’t be able to unpick,” she said.

She urged Matheson to intervene in what was shaping up to be a “fiasco” which the minister would ultimately be held responsible for.

He responded that it would be “reckless” and “irresponsible” for any minister to ignore the importance of making air services sustainable and delay taking a decision – though he acknowledged the importance of addressing problems the changes would present for existing HIAL staff.

HIAL recently conducted an islands impact assessment, which has yet to be published, but several MSPs felt it was a belated gesture that would make little difference at this stage given the clear intention to press ahead with the project.

Matheson explained the timing was because the HIAL proposals had preceded the introduction of “island proofing” of all legislation.

He welcomed the airport group’s decision to voluntarily conduct a “retrospective” study and said HIAL was not waiting on the impact assessment before acting to “address issues and concerns”.

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021