Damning Impact Assessment: ‘significant uncertainties’ in HIAL Remote Towers Project

The loss of well paid highly skilled jobs and its negative impact on Orkney will be the direct result of the Remote Towers project planned by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd.

For the Highlands and Islands region the consequences will be drastic.

There would no longer be ATC staff employed at the individual airports. The total loss of employment across Dundee, Kirkwall, Stornoway and Sumburgh would be c48 FTE jobs and c£2.2 million of gross annual salaries. HIAL Impact Assessment by reference economic consultants

The HIAL Remote Towers Project will see one central control situated in Inverness. A building has already been bought for this purpose which will replace air traffic control as we know it in the islands to be replaced using cameras and digital connectivity.

HIAL is a public company entirely owned by Scottish Government Ministers and the project has their full support.

The impact assessment was put before the HIAL Board last week. No member of the Board lives in the islands.

The production of the report included a survey of staff who would be affected with only 11% indicating that they would be prepared to move to Inverness. The Remote Tower will require 96 full time equivalent (FTE) posts by the time it is fully operational in 2027.

Last week the Transport Minister, Michael Matheson echoed the words of HIAL’s Managing Director, Inglis Lyon, that staff would have the opportunity to commute. This idea has huge flaws. Devising staff rotas would be nearly impossible with such a set up and staff who choose this ‘opportunity’ would require to pay their own travel costs across the great distances involved. Such a commute would also put an incredible strain on family life and relationships

It was also suggested by both the Minister and HIAL that staff who did not wish to move could be redeployed but this is also flawed as the jobs they did (at the salary they had) would no longer be there, less skilled work would have to be found .

The impact assessment was interesting because it looked at the wider aspects for Orkney and the other islands affected losing so many well paid jobs.

Looking at the staff affected in Orkney and the impact on 14 households . That’s about 40 people. Spouses and partners have jobs in the community, some of those also well paid and skilled therefore difficult to fill.

These include jobs with Orkney Islands Council, Police Scotland, the media and self-employed

The people affected involve themselves in the local community, doing voluntary work including helping with youth groups. The impact of losing these families would be extremely detrimental to how those groups function. Some of the family members also have caring responsibilities for relations nearby. And then we think of the ‘spending power’ of families that have two incomes – if those jobs go and the people with them – the spend is lost too. This is a significant loss to local shops and businesses.

Without even going into the huge issues around digital connectivity (the existing fibre connections will be used as 1 of 3) and safety, regulatory decisions by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) still to be made – it’s beyond belief that this project has gone so far and with full support of Scottish Government Ministers.

And if the timescale is to believed it is moving on apace. The first airport to migrate over to the Remote Tower system will be Inverness – in December 2022. Orkney will migrate over in December 2024.

The Impact Assessment states this:

The overall timescales for, and nature of, what HIAL are taking forward mean some significant uncertainties.

This is a major project, now well advanced, by a publicly owned company, providing lifeline services which will see the loss to the islands of highly skilled well paid jobs – and there are ‘significant uncertainties’.

Commenting on the findings of the Impact Assessment Orkney Constituency MSP Liam McArthur, LibDem, said:

“We’ve known for months that HIAL’s plans are damaging for our islands, but the impact assessment has revealed the full scale of this decision for our community. 

“The report not only underlines what HIAL’s own advisers warned them at the very beginning, that this is the riskiest and costliest option, but also details in no uncertain terms that these proposals will have a detrimental long-term impact on our lifeline services and local economy.

“Nobody has ever questioned the need to modernise air traffic control services but HIAL’s insistence that they do it by deploying ATMS is becoming less credible each day.  With costs for the project continuing to rise at a time when the aviation sector is facing considerable uncertainty, the case for halting the strategy is stronger than ever.

“Ministers must also absorb responsibility for these damning findings and, along with HIAL, take heed of the warnings outlined in this report if we are to safeguard air traffic services in the islands and uphold the credibility of island impact assessments.  Serious consideration must be given to calling time on these centralisation proposals.”

Prospect is the trade union which represents the HIAL Air Traffic Controllers.

Prospect Negotiations Officer David Avery said:

“The long-overdue Island Impact Assessment has now been published and shows what staff have been warning since the start of this project; that significant and unmitigable damage will be inflicted on island communities. The report is absolutely damning in its assessment of the damage this project will cause. Centralisation remains the most expensive and most economically damaging option and yet HIAL are determined to continue with it.

“The proposal of yet another independent study on generating further economic activity falls far short of what is required here. HIAL should immediately pause this project and commission a genuinely independent report considering the feasibility of an alternative localised model, if they refuse to do so then the Scottish Government must step in.

“This is a major test of the credibility of the Islands Act which was intended to stop projects like this and ensure organisations considered less damaging alternatives. If organisations are allowed to simply ignore these Assessments then the whole Act will be rendered little more than a PR exercise.”

Last week in his evidence session to the Public Petitions Committee Michael Matheson, Transport Minister in the Scottish Government stated that the Impact Assessment was there to mitigate the effects of the project. It was not there to stop it or to look at other options. He said that was not the purpose of Islands Proofing.

The Remote Towers Project was started before the Islands Act was in force. Islands Proofing is an important part of that Act and is supposed to protect island communities from suffering negatively for instance with projects which would take away jobs, impact the economy and contribute to depopulation.

Commenting on staffing, Prospect’s David Avery said:

“The report also confirms Prospect own survey which found that staff in island communities will not relocate to Inverness. HIAL need to explain how they intend to live up to their promise of no compulsory redundancies as all evidence suggests that widespread redundancies now seem inevitable.”

HIAL has welcomed the report.

Lorna Jack, HIAL Chair, said:

“The commissioning of the report demonstrates our commitment to listen and do everything we possibly can to mitigate any impacts. We want to work with colleagues and communities to find practical solutions.

“We appreciate that a programme of this magnitude and complexity will bring significant change for people in our communities, including our highly-valued air traffic control colleagues.

“However, standing still is not an option – we must modernise. ATMS is the only option that provides the necessary levels of resilience required to ensure long-term sustainable air traffic service provision for the communities we serve.”

Inglis Lyon,HIAL Managing Director added:

“We have always known there would be impacts by undertaking such a significant and complex change management programme.

“To date, there have been no alternative proposals that provide a solution that fully addresses all of the challenges HIAL currently faces.

“We hope that everyone with a vested interest in the long-term future of air traffic services in the Highlands and Islands will work us to deliver viable solutions that will maintain lifeline services and essential connectivity for generations to come.”

Responding to HIAL David Avery said:

“HIAL’s claim that local implementation is not viable or that this report endorses their position is simply not true. This report states HIAL’s position, it very clearly does not endorse it. Any attempt to claim the contrary is just more desperate spin.

“Local implementation of air traffic services including surveillance is how air traffic is implemented at almost every airport across the UK including at HIAL’s own Inverness airport. It is a viable workable and resilient alternative but HIAL refuse to consider it.”

You can download the Impact Assessment here:

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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