Highlands and Islands Airport Ltd (Air Traffic Control)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 9th September 2021.

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Photo of Donald Cameron Donald Cameron Conservative

5. To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on HIAL’s proposed centralisation of air traffic control services. (S6F-00230)

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Although that is a matter for Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd, it is clear that the Scottish Government has a strong interest in it. We are liaising and monitoring the process closely.

The investment that is being made in air traffic control is essential to secure the long-term future of air services in the Highlands and Islands.

The objective of the central surveillance centre in Inverness is to ensure safer, more sustainable and more reliable air services for the communities that rely on them. We know that the decision may affect where staff work in the future, and I understand that HIAL is engaging directly with the Prospect union on the detail of a commuting policy and other measures to mitigate that. However, we should not lose sight of what the investment and change are intended to deliver in the long term, which is security for the islands’ connectivity, with related social and economic benefits.

Photo of Donald Cameron Donald Cameron Conservative

Yesterday, the union Prospect sent a letter that was signed by representatives of all five major political parties as well as the three island local authority leaders which called for an urgent meeting with the Minister for Transport in light of the impact that the proposed centralisation will have on local jobs on the islands. I understand that a ministerial meeting with stakeholders is proposed to happen in two months’ time. Given the urgency of the situation, will the First Minister instruct the Minister for Transport to bring forward that meeting? Can she explain how centralisation can be justified, given her Government’s stated intention to encourage people to move to our islands and reverse depopulation?

The First Minister:

There are some serious and perfectly valid issues in there—complex issues. Of course we want to see the repopulation of our islands, but we must also ensure that there are sustainable services that support the connectivity of our islands. Those are often complex issues that require very careful thought.

On the Minister for Transport’s meeting with Prospect, my understanding is that he is due to meet the Scottish Trades Union Congress and Prospect next month to discuss aviation generally, and I am sure that the issue that has been raised will feature in that. We will certainly look to see whether diaries can enable that meeting to be brought forward. It is important that that engagement takes place.

As I said in my original answer, it is also important that HIAL engages directly with Prospect to address issues that have been raised about how it can make changes that improve the sustainability of the services. The kind of model that is being discussed already operates at London City airport, for example. Obviously, that is very different from our islands, but this is about the sustainability of those services in the longer term.

Important issues have been raised by the union, and I expect HIAL to engage properly with it. As I said, I will ask the Minister for Transport to see whether the meeting can be accelerated.

Photo of Emma Roddick Emma Roddick Scottish National Party

It is clear that the situation is very challenging for island communities. They value air traffic provision being delivered locally, because that gives them a sense of security and ensures that much-needed skilled jobs are based on our islands. For obvious reasons, people are nervous about the implications of HIAL’s proposed new centre in Inverness. What reassurance can the First Minister provide, particularly regarding what might happen to those jobs in the future?

The First Minister:

When it comes to the jobs, the issues around relocation are important, and those were what I was alluding to. It is important that HIAL engages with the unions and with workers in considering the policies in place that allow workers who are working under the new system nevertheless to continue to live in and contribute to our islands. That will not always be easy, but that is the work that we are expecting HIAL to engage in properly.

On some of the other concerns, safety issues have been raised with me directly, for example in Shetland. Those issues must be taken seriously. Loganair, the main airline flying in the Highlands and Islands, which is already operating under the system at London City, is supportive of the changes and the safety benefits that it says will be delivered. New air-traffic control procedures and the operation of such a centre will go live only following a rigorous assessment and approval by the Civil Aviation Authority.

I understand the concerns that are being raised—it is important to say that. There is a responsibility on HIAL and indeed on the Scottish Government to seek to address those concerns as we move forward.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I disagree with the First Minister that the programme is essential to ensure the long-term viability or indeed safety of air traffic in the Highlands and Islands. Digital Scotland classed the project as an amber-to-red risk. Added to that, the Sumburgh radar project, which is part of the scheme, is currently believed to be running six to 12 months behind schedule and costs have already increased. Is the First Minister still convinced that it is the right project to go forward with, and what steps is she taking to avoid another vanity transport project in the Highlands and Islands?

The First Minister:

I thank Rhoda Grant for her perfectly reasonable question, although I am not sure that anybody would describe it as a vanity project. There are sustainability issues in the services as they are. The project is about improving and securing the sustainability of the services in the future.

The project is still at an early stage, but it is proceeding in line with the approved business case. HIAL obviously has the responsibility to ensure that that continues to be the case.

There can be no compromise on safety on any aviation matter, which is why, to return to a point that I made in my previous answer, the processes that must be gone through, ultimately resulting in approval by the Civil Aviation Authority, are so important.

I recognise the concerns. A change such as this will always result in worries and questions for people. Therefore, HIAL and, indeed, the Scottish Government will address those in order to give people the reassurance that they need.