Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Highlands and Islands Airports (Car Parking Charges)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:00 pm on 24th February 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 5:00 pm, 24th February 2010

The next item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-5426, in the name of Liam McArthur, on car parking charges at Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd airports. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat 5:04 pm, 24th February 2010

I am delighted to have this opportunity to bring to Parliament a debate that is of major significance to my constituents and to the constituents of my colleague Tavish Scott and Dr Alasdair Allan, whose support for my motion is greatly appreciated—as indeed is the support of other members from across the chamber.

I have to say that it is slightly disappointing that no Tory member has been willing to support the campaign to date, although I am hopeful that the debate will help to convert them, even at this late stage. Either way, I will be interested to hear what Mary Scanlon has to say in due course.

Likewise, I hope that the minister can be persuaded to change his mind on this issue. I acknowledge his efforts to help to persuade HIAL—well after the 11th hour, I might add—to suspend the introduction of car parking charges at Kirkwall airport to allow consultation to take place. Nevertheless, he previously sanctioned those charges and, as I understand it, he still supports them.

The case for resisting the charges is compelling. I will start by addressing the point that some have made that car parking charges exist at other airports, including Inverness and Dundee, which are also operated by HIAL, and that there is therefore no reason why they should not exist at Kirkwall, Sumburgh and Stornoway. Frankly, that view betrays a complete misunderstanding of the function of those airports. It fails to recognise the lifeline nature of the air services that operate in and out of the islands and it conveniently turns a Nelsonian eye to the already high costs of accessing those lifeline services. For example, I could book a return flight this week with Flybe from Edinburgh to Kirkwall for £346. Return fares from London to New York over the same period start at £225, and many cost less than £300. Even from Dundee and Inverness, the cost of flights is generally far lower. Dundee to Birmingham with Flybe this week costs £263 and Inverness to Manchester, with the same carrier, costs an even more competitive £170.

Comparing island and mainland airports appears even more fatuous when one considers the alternative options to flying. Catching a bus or train from Dundee or even Inverness is certainly more realistic than doing so from Kirkwall, Stornoway or Sumburgh, whose nearest train station is, allegedly, in Bergen.

Of course, I recognise the benefits that the air discount scheme—which was introduced by Tavish Scott when he was the minister with responsibility for transport—has brought to my constituents and many others in the Highlands and Islands. Even so, the cost of flying in and out of the main island airports remains relatively high. As HIAL board member Dr Alistair Goodlad observed at a meeting in August 2008, the car parking charge proposal "would work against" the air discount scheme, which was

"established to reduce the cost of air travel".

Dr Goodlad also concluded that the scheme

"could adversely affect those living in outlying areas who have no other means of travelling to the airport".

I could not agree more. Sadly, Dr Goodlad's concerns seem to have been dismissed by his board colleagues.

I must say—and I suspect that the minister might privately agree—that HIAL's approach to this issue has been remarkably high-handed. The fact that there has been a complete failure, until recently, to consult the local population in Orkney beggars belief. HIAL's assertion that that was somehow the responsibility of Orkney Islands Council is simply staggering. The proposals were HIAL's. The detail on how they would operate was known only to HIAL. Responsibility for ensuring that effective consultation with key local stakeholders took place was indisputably HIAL's and HIAL's alone. It is difficult to comprehend why it took HIAL so long to recognise that fact.

To compound that failure, HIAL also kept its own statutory consultative committee in the dark and then ignored, at least initially, the committee's unanimous call for the introduction of the charges to be suspended pending proper consultation. Even now, the feeling is that HIAL's consultation is a cosmetic exercise and that the organisation is simply going through the motions. That is why there is increasingly a sense in Orkney and the other island groups that the minister must step in.

The omens are not good, however. When I sought information on how the decision was reached initially, every effort was made by HIAL and the Scottish Government to frustrate and delay. There even appears to be evidence of collusion in the rejection of my requests under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, notably in an e-mail from Inglis Lyon, dated 10 December 2009, which suggested that "a more robust approach" be taken and talked about the need for

"five minutes with government colleagues to agree a suitable response".

With the assistance of the Scottish Information Commissioner, details of the discussions that took place were forthcoming, and they demonstrate a complete absence of any understanding in Government of the impact that the charges would have locally. In an e-mail of 27 November 2009, a Government official requested information on what arrangements there were for national health service patients and those islanders without easy access to the bus service from the centre of Kirkwall. That serves to highlight that decisions were taken not only without proper consultation by HIAL but with wholly inadequate scrutiny of the likely impacts by the Government. For example, the impact on Orkney patients travelling to and from hospital appointments in Aberdeen and Inverness had been completely ignored until I highlighted the issue in November.

Even now, HIAL's failure to respond to NHS Orkney's request earlier this month for details of its consultation means that NHS Orkney's board will not now have a chance to consider any possible submission until the end of April. I presume that the minister would not agree to allow any decisions to be taken in advance of NHS Orkney's views being formally submitted. That would indeed be unacceptable.

The impact on other groups was also never considered. Those who travel in from outlying islands or rural mainland parishes, the local tourism sector, renewables operators, Orkney disability forum and others all failed to register on HIAL's radar screen.

I am pleased, at least, that the collective efforts of those groups, the Kirkwall airport consultative committee and members of the public in Orkney have resulted in the charges being suspended in order to allow consultation to take place.

It is clear that Orkney's efforts have ensured that Shetland and the Western Isles will be treated with rather more respect from the outset. However, HIAL's intentions are clear. The minutes of a board meeting in August 2008 quote Mr Lyon as stating:

"at this point, I have avoided charges at both Sumburgh and Stornoway, the former because of the distance between the airport and the main centre of population and the latter because we have available space. The Board will be aware that we have recently increased the size of the car park at Kirkwall ... which gives us the ideal platform to take this project forward".

In other words, as my motion indicates, the risk is that charges will be introduced in Orkney, thereby clearing the way for HIAL to introduce them in Shetland and the Western Isles.

The minister appears to take a different view. In his letter to the consultative committee earlier this month, he said:

"I fully appreciate your desire for consistency, but I equally recognise that each island has different characteristics and that those have to be taken into account".

Indeed, but HIAL has made it clear that its rationale for introducing car parking charges is simply to recoup the £1 million that the Scottish ministers cut from its budget. As such, the discussion is not about the merits of car park charging but about the contribution that each community should pay to make good the Government's cuts.

Members should rest assured that any attempt to introduce airport car parking charges in Orkney before, or instead of, introducing them in the other island areas will be meet with the strongest possible resistance in my constituency. I welcome the opportunity to highlight the issue and the serious concerns that my constituents feel. I hope that, given the cross-party consensus—possibly even with the late arrival of the Tories—the minister will agree to reconsider his approval of the case for introducing the charges.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party 5:11 pm, 24th February 2010

I apologise that I cannot stay to the end of the debate because of another engagement, but I thank Liam McArthur for bringing the matter to the Parliament.

I realise that the arguments that could be marshalled against the principle of free parking, let alone free parking at an airport, are legion—pace the Scottish Green Party. Doubtless, some people will see special pleading at work in this debate, but I do not. I should declare an interest as someone whose decrepit car presently sits for three days a week rusting further outside Stornoway airport, but the issue is particularly significant to island communities, therefore I welcome the opportunity to discuss it.

As Liam McArthur said, a number of factors make the island airports different. First, they are not primarily used by tourists. Yes, some islanders leave their cars at the airport when they are on holiday, but my understanding is that the overwhelming majority of people who leave their cars at Stornoway airport do so because they have to travel off island with work or, in a large number of cases, they are going to hospital or visiting someone in hospital.

As the airports provide lifeline services that are essential for the islands to function as modern economies, another special factor is worth bearing in mind: the money that many islanders have to pay to get to the mainland unless they book many weeks in advance is the kind of money with which one could have a foreign holiday. For that reason, the threat to introduce car parking charges at island airports has a knock-on effect on economic development in the islands.

I recognise the harsh realities under which HIAL operates and the constraints that are upon it, like the rest of the country. I also recognise its willingness to consider, in many cases, the option of paying for better bus services to its airports to connect with flights. However, I would be lying if I said that a bus between Stornoway and Stornoway airport would be likely to tempt me out of my car unless it could be shown that there was a convincing way of getting the 8 miles from my house to Stornoway by public transport in time to connect with that bus.

I live relatively close to an airport, but the situation for many other islanders—who live further afield and have two or three buses a day to choose from—is unpromising. Alternatively, if the proposal is that I should drive to town and then get the bus from town to the airport, I hope that a new park and ride-sized car park is being built somewhere in Stornoway to facilitate that.

Those are the realities of transport in all island communities. For all those reasons, although I recognise the difficulties that HIAL faces, I share Liam McArthur's hope that consultation on the matter will be genuine and far reaching and that the issues that I and others have mentioned will be to the fore in HIAL's mind. I hope that the daily challenges that islanders face—whether they be in Orkney, Shetland or the Western Isles—are acknowledged. I have made my own views on the matter known to HIAL, as have other island members.

I thank Liam McArthur again for bringing the matter to the Parliament and trust that other islanders will now engage actively with the consultation and make their views known.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour 5:15 pm, 24th February 2010

I welcome the debate and I am pleased to support Liam McArthur's motion. I welcome his comments: he gave a clear analysis of the situation and drew out the special features of island life. Alasdair Allan supported that. I lived in Orkney for a couple of years, back in the 1970s, which was probably before Liam McArthur was born. That remark was unduly complimentary, so I withdraw it immediately. When one lives on an island, one begins to recognise that air travel is much more common than it is in other communities in our society and that it is, for a variety of reasons of the sort that Liam McArthur touched on, more of a necessity than a choice.

One factor is that there are few alternative transport choices from the islands, other than ferries, which take a long time and involve further journeys at the end. Air services are lifeline services that come at a very high cost to island residents. I was going to quote some figures, but Liam McArthur has already done so, so I will not. People who travel on business or for hospital visits often do not return to the islands for more than 24 hours. Therefore, by definition, a parking charge would be greater than it might be for mainland dwellers.

Those were some of the reasons why the previous Administration introduced the air discount scheme, which recognised the high costs for people who live on the islands. The scheme has huge advantages. Any charging regime in car parks on the islands would begin to erode the value of the scheme, albeit in a small way. Of course, once charges were established in principle, there is no reason why in future years they would not rise substantially, which would further erode that basic policy.

It is clear that HIAL has wanted to introduce car parking charges for a long time. I understand that there were, previously, proposals, which Tavish Scott stopped at the time. He was right to do that. The current minister is wrong to have permitted charges. However, perhaps following the example of others today, he can show contrition and demonstrate that he, too, can say "Sorry", then we can all make progress together. Liam McArthur is right that HIAL has acted in a high-handed manner. I regret that and I hope that it has learned lessons from the process.

As I said, air services are lifeline services. An interesting feature of the emerging situation is the contradiction in Government policy. As members have said, many people in Orkney use air services to visit relatives in hospital in Aberdeen and people in the Western Isles go to Raigmore hospital in Inverness. People who live on the mainland can drive to a hospital and, because of SNP policy, can park free of charge. The Government lauds that policy. However, under the proposals, people who visit hospitals from the islands would pay hospital car parking charges—the only difference is that they would pay them to HIAL and do so in Kirkwall and, potentially, Sumburgh and Stornoway. That cannot be right. It would be daft administratively to create a system to refund those individuals, which would be required in order to have a consistent policy from the Government. Therefore, it is better just to do away with the parking charge proposals now and not let the process move further forward.

People who visit hospitals and who do business from the islands already pay substantial charges. They pay for an expensive flight and they probably pay for a hotel overnight if they are visiting a relative in Aberdeen or Inverness. To add to that cost would simply be wrong. A small amount of revenue would be raised relative to the challenge that HIAL faces, and it would come from islanders' pockets. It would be a shame if that were to happen. I urge HIAL not to proceed and I hope that we will have the strong encouragement of the minister.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative 5:19 pm, 24th February 2010

I have been reminded that I did not sign the motion. I have not signed many motions, but that does not mean that I disagree with them. Many members do not sign motions that I lodge, not because they disagree, but because so many motions are lodged. I certainly agree with everything that has been said. However, as I have been named and shamed by Liam McArthur—which was unnecessary and not in the tone of the debate—I will certainly sign the motion.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

The member has said enough.

I very much welcome the debate, and acknowledge the commitment and persistence of Liam McArthur in vigorously opposing the introduction of car parking charges at Kirkwall airport. The consultation process—which is, I hope, under way—will bring transparency and fairness to the options surrounding the introduction or otherwise of charges. However, rather than just having a narrow remit, the consultation should emphasise the impact on tourism and the effect that reduced travel numbers could have on the sustainability of HIAL airports in the longer term.

As the motion states, air travel is a lifeline service to and from the mainland for people who live on remote islands, although it costs more to cross the Pentland Firth than it does to cross the Atlantic. Whether it is to access health care, to work, to study, to visit family or simply to get off the island, there is no doubt about the importance of air links to island communities. If car parking charges at airports such as Kirkwall, Sumburgh and Stornoway were put in place, my worry is that many island residents would be discouraged from using the service, which could pose a risk to the viability of those and other smaller and more remote airports.

The impact on tourism is another issue that should be taken into account in the consultation. If passengers were discouraged from using air travel, it would reduce tourism and have an impact on business, and it could affect the sustainability of the air links. There is no doubt that parking charges could have an effect on the number of people who use air travel and could, ultimately, have a financial impact on businesses in island communities. Although additional revenues are generated from the car parking charges that exist in all major airports throughout Scotland, such charges can discourage thousands of air passengers from taking their cars and contributing to the carbon footprint. However, as Alasdair Allan said, there are other means of transport from cities to airports. Inverness has a regular shuttle-bus transfer and taxis at competitive prices. All being well—our transport minister is here to hear me say this—a train station at Dalcross will open in 2016. There are alternative ways of getting to Inverness airport.

Another issue is the price of petrol and diesel, which has been steadily increasing on the islands in recent years. I am sure that many islanders would welcome a more reliable public transport system but, unfortunately, that does not exist. As Liam McArthur said, car parking charges have always existed at Inverness airport. Since 2003, the car park has been managed by HIAL. Prior to that, it was managed by National Car Parks. The upgrading of the facilities and the introduction of a long-stay car park have expanded the opportunities for Inverness and the long-term plans for the business park.

Inverness airport operates a significantly greater number of flights than airports on Shetland, on Orkney and on the Western Isles, and pulls a huge volume of people from across the Highlands from places as far flung as Ullapool, Fort William, Durness and Wick. However, with the shuttle bus in operation between the city centre and the retail park, and buses to Nairn, Forres and Elgin, the public transport connections are much better at Inverness airport.

I acknowledge that, as Liam McArthur mentioned, HIAL faces financial difficulty. There is no doubt that the Government's reduction in its budget of £1.1 million has exacerbated that financial difficulty, but car parking charges or, indeed, higher taxes on air travel, might mean that fewer people will be able to afford to travel by air, which means that services will be lost and the sustainability of fragile communities will be adversely affected.

For all those reasons, I support the motion. I should scroll through all the motions because there may be many more that I should support. I am pleased that Liam McArthur has raised this issue, and I am happy to support the motion in his name.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 5:24 pm, 24th February 2010

Like members around the chamber, I thank Liam McArthur for securing a debate on this important issue. I assure Mr McArthur and other members that I appreciate that strong arguments will be, and have been, made against the introduction of car parking charges at Kirkwall airport and elsewhere. Indeed, I am conscious of the lively debate that took place when car parking charges were extended in Kirkwall town centre to include another four car parks to improve parking turnover, with a highest charge of £2.40 a day.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I think that I am right in saying that the proposal was for four car parks, but the decision was ultimately taken to extend charges to two. I say that to clarify the situation for the record—I would not want him to mislead the Parliament.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

The record is now clear and I am sure that the member would not seek to mislead me or anyone else on the matter—two car parks it is.

I simply make the point that the circumstances in which different bodies find themselves mean that they have to look very carefully at the options that are in front of them.

I make the general point that HIAL has 11 airports. I have flown personally into all of them: four as a pilot, a number as a passenger personally and some as a minister. I know that there is huge diversity in the airports across the network and that we have to have appropriate responses to the needs of each one.

I heard the discussions about air fares. It is correct that in our island communities there is not much, if any, competition for the provision of services, so one's choice is much more limited. As a minister, when I was going to Poznań for the 14th conference of the parties—COP 14—about 15 months ago, according to the initial quote from the Government's travel advisers the fare would be £1,200. I did not think that that was the right amount of money, so I spent 20 minutes on the internet and got it down to about £200. It meant arriving in Poznań at 3.15 in the morning, but I thought that it was a sensible thing for the minister to do, although he should not have had to do it.

I acknowledge the value of the discount scheme that the previous Administration introduced and I have been pleased to continue to give support to that very important scheme. I am not terribly sure that the references to FOIs accorded with my understanding of what went on. We have had some useful clarification from Kevin Dunion, the Information Commissioner, about whether documents or information may be sought and we have adjusted our policies accordingly.

It is important that we have a consistent policy on car parking, but having a consistent policy does not ineluctably lead to having identical outcomes. It is clear that the distance of Sumburgh airport from any major centres of population in Shetland creates a particular dynamic that will need to be considered.

I acknowledge Alasdair Allan's legitimate point that there are not many tourists in the car parks of our major island airports. They are essentially used by local people and there is significant difficulty in travelling to airports.

Peter Peacock, like Liam McArthur, referred to NHS patients. I quote from a letter from Inglis Lyon to, among others, the chair of the Kirkwall airport consultative committee. At question 2, it states:

"No charge for hospital patients".

I accept that that is for consultation and that it is a suggestion, but I would be somewhat surprised, whatever outcome we achieve, if we were to wish to charge hospital patients or, for that matter, blue badge holders. Indeed, the suggestion in the letter from Inglis Lyon is that the charge for parking for 24 hours will be £3—broadly the same as the charge for parking in the centre of Kirkwall.

We are in challenging financial times and the board of HIAL is responsible for running the company. The Government minister—me—acts on behalf of the public as the owner of the shares, but, under the Companies Act, it is clear that we appoint the board members to make decisions. I am sure that HIAL will be watching the debate and will be very much aware of the interest that is being taken in the issue. I am very pleased that consultations are now going on. Given reduced demand and hence reduced income, it is important that the board considers every opportunity to balance the books and to ensure that it discharges its responsibilities.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

About a minute ago, the minister mentioned a consistent approach. Does he agree that a central factor in that is whether alternative public transport systems are available, such as those in Inverness that I outlined, and that a critical factor is the airport's sustainability, given a potential reduction in demand?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I acknowledge that absolutely. The investment in new parking facilities at Kirkwall as part of the terminal's redevelopment was excellent. I note that, at peak times, the car park is full—in fact, it is overfull, to the extent that people park on the grass verges and elsewhere. That is not disconnected from the point that almost everyone who parks at the airport contributes to the revenue that is generated from the airport.

HIAL must take into account precisely those balancing issues.

I referred to Sumburgh's location, which presents special challenges because of its distance. I know how much a taxi journey to Sumburgh costs, because I have had to do it on ministerial duties.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

If the Presiding Officer is content for me to do so, I will keep taking interventions.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I do not know about keeping on taking interventions, but the minister can take this one.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I thank the minister and the Presiding Officer for allowing me to intervene.

The minister referred to the distance between Sumburgh and Lerwick, which is the main population centre. He will appreciate that Orkney has been described as the fried egg, which presents other challenges, not least the existence of other population centres in Stromness, out on the west mainland and in the wider isles, which use the airport but do not have access to the bus service. Constant reference to the distance of Kirkwall rather than Lerwick to the airport is slightly disingenuous, as is the reference to car parking charges in Kirkwall town centre, which are irrelevant to many of my constituents.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I refer to Sumburgh merely because of the clear and specific difference, but the circumstances at each airport—Stornoway, Kirkwall and Sumburgh—need to be considered. I do not wish to pre-empt the outcomes.

HIAL's remit includes consideration of the social aspect. I do not encourage the board to take a decision that would make it difficult for people to travel to the airport to use air services and I am sure that the board will take tent of my saying that and of what others say.

We give HIAL substantial financial support of some £27 million. The air discount scheme, which benefits many people in Orkney and the Highlands and Islands—take-up levels are high, although they are probably lower in Caithness and Sutherland, where I would like them to rise—involves a further £6 million. Substantial support is provided.

HIAL's board has reflected on the need to consult more fully. I welcome that. Lessons can be learned from the initial consultation. Such decisions are not abstract—they touch on the lives of people in our islands, so it is proper that they should involve consultative committees.

Of course, the board has a wider fiduciary duty to support economic and social aims for the Highlands and Islands. It would have to ameliorate any potential impact of introducing charges and to ensure that it can explain the policies that it implements.

I assure Mary Scanlon that the planning processes for Dalcross station are proceeding apace.

The debate has been useful. I wait with interest to see what HIAL takes out of the consultations that it is undertaking. I hope that it will listen carefully to the input from the debate and from elsewhere. Ultimately, it is for HIAL to take decisions, but I am sure that it will take notice of what is said elsewhere.

Meeting closed at 17:34.