Plans by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) to move well paid skilled jobs from the islands to Inverness have been described as ‘a mindset of the Past’ by convener of a Scottish Parliament committee, Johan Lamont, Labour.
Representatives of HIAL were giving evidence before the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee on their controversial Remote Towers Project.
The cross party group of MSPs quizzed HIAL’s Inglis Lyon (HIAL Managing Director), Pat Nolan and Gary Cobb on the plans which are said to have costs which have ‘spiralled’ since they were first embarked upon.
In his evidence, Inglis Lyon said that the project was on schedule and on budget. He stated that the budget of £28.4million now had contingency additions of £5.4million. The budget was now at £34.7million.
It was clear from further questioning of the HIAL representatives that there are many factors which are unclear and details were scarce.
Islands Impact Assessment
An Islands Impact Assessment, which is a condition of the Islands Act, has now been completed – retrospectively – but Inglis Lyon had not read it prior to the meeting as it had just arrived on his desk. He said that the scope of the Impact Assessment had been drawn up by the Scottish Islands Team, a Scottish Government group. HIAL is a public company owned entirely by Scottish Government Ministers.
The Islands Impact Assessment will go before the HIAL Board on the 24th of February. There has been much skepticism in the islands about how the islands proofing mechanism will work and indeed if it will be at all effective at protecting the interests of island communities. HIAL made the decision to go ahead with Remote Towers centered in Inverness without doing any islands proofing. Inglis Lyon informed the Petitions Committee that the results of the report (which he had not read) would be used to mitigate the effects of the move to Inverness and the downgrading of Benbecula and Wick airports.
Labour’s Rhoda Grant MSP had many questions which she put to the HIAL representatives. The new system will require excellent connectivity links. Gary Cobb for HIAL listed what he said were ‘multiple options’ should back up be required with a failure of connectivity. When asked by Rhoda Grant if this would involve the laying of subsea cables, he said no it would not.
Rhoda Grant was not satisfied with the responses from the HIAL team and she has now written to Audit Scotland asking them to examine HIAL’s centralisation plans for Air Traffic Control. Describing the responses by HIAL to the MSPs as ‘all smoke and mirrors’ she said that the 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.
“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 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.
“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.”
Inglis Lyon told the committee that staff will have to relocate or commute. Some would be redeployed that did not wish to move to Inverness and there would have to be recruitment. Rhoda Grant said that her information was that only 5% of those affected were willing to relocate to Inverness. Discussions with staff on the various options: redundancy, relocation, redeployment and commuting were still to take place.
Prospect is the trade union which represents air traffic controllers at HIAL
David Avery, Prospect Negotiations Officer, said:
“While HIAL are right to say formal consultation has not yet begun, the clear feedback from Prospect members is that due to family and local connections they are unlikely to relocate regardless of the package offered.
“HIAL have no plan on avoiding compulsory redundancies where staff do not feel able to relocate.
“MSPs are correct to point out that the remote towers project is poorly thought through, with HIAL refusing to consider changing circumstances and additional evidence against the project.
“Costs have significantly increased since 2018 and are likely to continue to increase as staff transition costs and radar costs have not yet been included.
“At the same time the scope of the project has decreased with only five airports being served by the new centre instead of the original seven. Of those five Inverness and Sumburgh will see none of the purported benefits as they already have radar surveillance.
“It is time HIAL dropped this project and invested in the local communities and workforce of the Highland and Islands.”
A Risky Option
Orkney LibDem MSP Liam McArthur has urged HIAL to reconsider their plans to centralise air traffic control services in Inverness amidst concerns around rising costs and an absence of prior ‘island proofing’ of the proposals. He repeated warnings from HIAL’s own advisers that centralising air traffic control services was the ‘riskiest and costliest option’ in response to recent findings that over £6million has been spent on the project so far. He was extremely doubtful of the workforce planning because Inverness is the place which has the biggest issue on retention of staff and yet this is where HIAL will be relocating staff to.
Liam McArthur said:
“Despite assurances from HIAL that the plans are ‘on schedule and on budget’, it is already clear that costs have increased significantly and risk spiralling further.
“Mr Lyon again dismissed the need to review HIAL’s centralisation plans in light of the impact the pandemic has had on the aviation sector. Given that HIAL’s own consultants confirmed centralisation was the ‘costliest and riskiest’ option, such a review would seem to be prudent.
“Even the much delayed island impact assessment, due to be published finally later this month, lacks credibility. The decisions have already been taken and millions in public money already spent.
“Mr Lyon has made no secret of the fact that the islands assessment will have no bearing on HIAL’s plans to centralise services in Inverness. So much for the Scottish Government’s commitment to ‘island proofing’.
“No-one disputes the need to modernise air traffic services, which are essential for supporting operations on our lifeline air routes. However, with costs rising, risks unaddressed and staff threatening to leave, it is time for HIAL to call a halt to this ill-conceived venture.”
Inglis Lyon said that the Remote Tower project must be done and without it HIAL would not be able to ‘guarantee air traffic connectivity’ and that would ‘compromise lifeline services’. He said that HIAL had been ‘open and transparent from the very start’ . He had no numbers as to how many people would need to relocate, commute or redeploy. He described it as a ‘complex change management project.’
The HIAL plans have the support of Michael Matheson, Transport Secretary in the Scottish Government. He described the controversial project as an ‘opportunity’.
In an answer to a debate raised by Shetland LibDem MSP Beatric Whishart, on 23rd of January 2020, Michael Matheson said:
“I recognise that not all air traffic controllers are supportive of the change, which is understandable. However, the change presents an opportunity to move in a direction that is in line with the rest of the industry on provision of air traffic control services, to ensure that HIAL can meet the regulatory change that it will face in the years ahead to deliver a more resilient service than exists at present. The change will also future proof the service with the latest technology, which will benefit service users in the years ahead.
“Ultimately, however, the program will provide an opportunity to provide a much more resilient and safer service than we have now. Of course, full implementation by HIAL will be done in a fashion that I believe will involve careful and detailed assessment. Rigorous testing will be implemented throughout the process in order to meet the Civil Aviation Authority’s standards. “
A petition lodged by petitioners 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 support airports across the Highlands and Islands with remote ATC have come under increasing criticism for a lack of transparency and lack of consideration of the risks and costs of the project.
You can watch the meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee here:
Consideration of a continued petition: The Committee will consider the following continued petition—
PE1804: Halt Highlands & Islands Airports Ltd’s Air Traffic Management Strategy and will take evidence from Inglis Lyon, Managing Director; Gary Cobb, Chief Operating Officer; and Pat Nolan, ATM Professional Advisor, Highlands and Islands Airport Ltd.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame