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Highlands and Islands Airports (Car Parking Charges)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:04 pm on 24th February 2010.

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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.