“If I were a private investor and HIAL were making a pitch to me for funding I would walk away.”

Michael Matheson, Transport Minister in the Scottish Government will appear before the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament next week, 24th of February, to answer questions about Highland and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) Remote Towers Project.

HIAL’s Remote Towers Project which will see the downgrading of Benbecula and Wick airports and a new centre set up in Inverness for air traffic control has been controversial from the start.

Doubts have been raised on the costs and the safety of the project which requires a level of digital connectivity which we don’t have. It will also see highly skilled jobs removed from the islands to Inverness.

The issue came before the Scottish Parliament committee after a petition was raised. The Petitioners have appeared before the committee and on Thursday HIAL representatives gave their evidence.

After watching the proceedings Peter Henderson, one of the petitioners gave his reaction to The Orkney News.

Peter Henderson said that a lot was said in a confident fashion but that most of it had little meaning.

“HIAL are 3 years into the project,” he continued, ” and at least 6 million pounds has been spent so far with only a building needing renovation on an Industrial estate to show for it. There has been a highly paid team working on this project full time for 2 years yet the key enabler, communications links, is still under investigation.

“HIAL show throughout the meeting that they are fixated on achieving centralisation and intend to pursue their goal to the end. They stated that walking away was not on their agenda. Blinkered thinking leads to failed projects.

“If I were a private investor and HIAL were making a pitch to me for funding I would walk away.”

Steve Sankey of The Orkney Greens has described the Remote Towers Project ‘as riding roughshod over the interests of Orkney.’

Steve Sankey said:

“It’s clear from the evidence heard at the Public Petitions Committee last week, that despite all the public opposition to HIAL’s proposal to centralise a new ATMS in Inverness, their Chief Executive and Board have no intention of walking away from this project.

“Over £6 million has already been spent on the project, and it’s yet another example of creeping centralisation being sanctioned by the Scottish Government. Well paid professional jobs will disappear South, with a report last year from Prospect the Union estimating that £18million will be removed from our island economies.

“The HIAL Board includes no representation from island communities, and it’s clear to me from their decisions and tone to date that they just don’t get it. There is massive opposition to these proposals, from HIAL staff with strike action likely, from unions, from the three island Councils, including OIC, and my constituents.

“We’ve worked hard in recent years to ensure that Scottish Government policies are tested in advance through the Islands Act, and yet here’s a government agency driving a coach and horses through the process. Scottish Green Party policy is to promote decision-making at local levels, and I’ll be watching the outcomes from the HIAL Board next week very closely, when we’ll discover exactly what the specific impact will be on the Orkney economy.”

Robert Leslie, SNP candidate for the Orkney Constituency in May’s Scottish Parliament elections is also opposed to the HIAL plan. He is concerned that the Islands Impact Assessment, which will go before the HIAL Board on 24th of February, will have no bearing on whether or not the project continues.

Inglis Lyon, confirmed to the Public Petitions Committee, that although he had received the report he had not yet read it but that HIAL would not be changing their plans. The Islands Impact Assessment would only be used to address issues to mitigate the effects of the plan. The scope of the Islands Impact Assessment was drawn up by the Scottish Islands Team, a Scottish Government group. HIAL is a public company, entirely owned by Scottish Government Ministers.

Commenting on the Islands Impact Assessment, Robert Leslie said:

“If its contents are in line with the views that have already been expressed by island-based Air Traffic Controllers and islanders in general then I would hope that someone in a position of authority would take note. I know, for example, that in Orkney there is scepticism over the claim about difficulties around recruitment and retention of staff, which has been given by HIAL as one of the reasons for their plans. I would welcome any evidence from HIAL of a recruitment drive in Orkney schools or Orkney College in recent years.

“Along with the safety concerns of this centralisation plan, the loss of a substantial number of relatively well-paid jobs from Orkney is of concern. The total annual salary payments to Air Traffic Management staff at Kirkwall Airport in 2019-20 was £565,000 – a lot to lose from the local economy at any time, but especially in the present circumstances.

“I would say the HIAL proposals are a pre-Covid-19 era plan which seem inappropriate in present reality. It would be sensible for HIAL to at least pause at this point until some predictability returns to civil aviation and the wider economy.”

For petitioner Peter Henderson, Communications links are the key issue. He said that “without reliable, robust, resilient communications systems the airports will not operate at the same level as they do today. They introduce a point of failure that does not exist today.”

At a recent virtual meeting Peter Henderson was present at chaired by Angus MacNeil, MP for the Western Isles, HIAL gave different answers to the same questions posed by the Petitions Committee

Peter Henderson continued:

“HIAL said at that meeting they should be able to manage 2 links with 3 a possibility. The CAA who were also present said that while 2 separate links are the minimum required, if one fails the other is used to close the airport. The CAA strongly recommended that as HIAL operates Safety to Life operations at its airports they should have 3 separate links. At the Petitions Committee HIAL finally committed publicly to 3 links.

” At present HIAL are still guessing with regard to the true cost.”

And there are more costs.

“The second big expense is Primary Radar,” said Peter Henderson. “It is still HIAL’s stated aim to have controlled airspace at each Air Traffic Control airport. The CAA currently require Primary radar for controlled airspace as it shows all aircraft in flight on a display screen. The ADS-B system HIAL hoped to use only shows aircraft that carry the right equipment, so not all aircraft in the area are shown. CAA approval for ADS-B only surveillance of aircraft in flight is still some years away so if HIAL want to meet their timescale for the project they will have to invest heavily in radar at a cost of around £5million per airport.”

Inglis Lyon confirmed at the Public Petitions Committee that he could not give numbers on staff who wished to relocate, commute or be redeployed. Prospect, the trade union representing the Air Traffic Controllers, said that no formal discussions had taken place with staff. Rhoda Grant MSP, Labour, said that she had information that only 5% of the current employees would be prepared to relocate to Inverness.

Peter Henderson said that the vast majority of staff do not want to move under any circumstances.

“I know that for a fact.

” Unless they agree to move the project will struggle to succeed and may ultimately fail.

“If staff who are settled in the Islands are forced to move to Inverness they will not stay with HIAL. The simple fact and main cause of HIAL’s recruitment and retention problems is that they do not pay a competitive wage.

“Relocating staff who are settled in their communities will cause HIAL a major problem. Those who relocate will stay long enough to get a radar qualification and some experience then will move to a better paying employer. It is that simple.

“At present the settled local staff are happy to accept a lower wage in order to stay in their home communities. They want to stay where they are.

“Inglis mentioned commuting. A member of the HIAL ATMS project team told staff that commuting is an unrealistic proposition as it makes writing a staff roster too difficult. Within HIAL it is no longer an option, despite what Inglis says.”

The Orkney News contacted the Scottish Government to get a statement from Michael Matheson, Transport Minister and/or Paul Wheelhouse, Minister for the Islands but so far we have received no response.

Michael Matheson’s appearance before the Public Petitions Committee is next week. Peter Henderson has a question for him:

“Why don´t you appoint HIAL Board Members who actually live in the areas served by HIAL? That way you would ensure that HIAL would try and serve the communities who rely on HIAL airports, rather then damaging them.”

Previous article:HIAL’s Centralisation Plans ‘A Mindset Of The Past’

Reporter: Fiona Grahame
Control tower and apron, Benbecula Airport by David Martin

2 replies »

  1. H.I.A.L.’s madness of Centralisation is reminiscent of the Highland Clearances !
    Not only are their non-executive board members not resident in the Highlands they are comprised almost entirely of accountants and financial sector personnel who have no understanding what so ever in relation to airports or aviation !

  2. The lack of meaningful comments from the Cabinet Secretary for Transport indicates that it is current Scottish Government policy to let HIAL operate at ‘arms length’? – avoiding any accountability and transparency to the communities that they serve and more generally to the Scottish tax payers. Fortunately there is a Scottish Parliamentary Election in May, hopefully this current policy can be highlighted and challenged in the run-up period to this Election. 

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