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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 10, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 10 May 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Highlands and Islands Airports (Car Parking Charges), Energy Efficient Scotland, Decision Time


Contents


Highlands and Islands Airports (Car Parking Charges)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-11968, in the name of Tavish Scott, on Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd’s car parking charges. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the reported widespread public concern in response to the recent decision by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) to impose car parking charges at Sumburgh, Kirkwall and Stornoway airports; understands that this decision was taken without any prior consultation with airport users, the local authorities or the airport consultative committees, despite HIAL’s Strategic Plan promising “effective collaboration with airport users and stakeholders”; believes that this decision will overwhelmingly affect island residents who use the airports as part of a lifeline service for accessing the mainland and who already face what it considers to be relatively high costs for doing so; understands that Sumburgh Airport is 25 miles away from the main town of Lerwick and that its remoteness means many islanders have little option but to drive to the airport; believes that the transport links between these island airports and many of the areas that they serve are intermittent, do not meet every flight and do not always connect the airports with outlying areas; understands that this lack of public transport infrastructure forces many islanders to leave their cars at the airports, in many cases for weeks at a time if they are working offshore or abroad, and notes the calls for HIAL to reconsider this proposal.

12:44  

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I thank members and the Minister for Transport and the Islands for being present for this discussion.

The debate is about Highlands and Islands Airports’ plans to impose car parking charges at Sumburgh, Kirkwall and Stornoway, despite the fact that it has carried out absolutely no consultation whatsoever. In some ways, I feel guilty about wasting the Parliament’s time on this matter, because the measure simply should not be happening.

Sumburgh airport is located on the most southerly tip of Shetland, 25 miles from Lerwick, the island’s capital. The vast majority who fly from Sumburgh drive to and park at the airport, because there is no dedicated airport shuttle bus connecting to flights and no public transport connections to Sumburgh from any other part of Shetland. A taxi to Lerwick costs £60 one way and the cost to the north isles of Shetland would be more than £100. HIAL runs Sumburgh, Kirkwall and Stornoway airports and knows where Sumburgh is, but islanders now know that HIAL has no idea—or simply does not care—where the rest of Shetland is.

I understand that HIAL has financial pressures, but that should have meant a thorough assessment of how to save money. HIAL has not published any savings options. Did the board consider any other options before making this decision on 6 February? It now plans an islands tax of £3 a day for the privilege of parking at the airport. It will be a HIAL and Scottish National Party tax, if it is allowed to happen.

Has HIAL consulted on this? No. The First Minister said that that was remiss, and I was grateful for that answer. I urge the Government to turn “remiss” into something stronger today. Has HIAL adopted the weasel words in its strategic plan about working in partnership with island communities, airport consultative committees and local councils? It has not, and that is unacceptable.

If a Shetland family must park at Sumburgh to fly south, it would add £42 to the cost of a fortnight away. The charge would also hit regular commuters. However, it would not hit staff of local government, health boards or others, such as members of the Scottish Parliament, who can claim travel costs. That is one public purse replenishing another—a fact that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution may want to consider. This measure will hit real people hardest—families, business people and voluntary sector representatives—and that is why it is so wrong.

As the leadership of Shetland Islands Council reminded the minister recently in Lerwick, there has been no impact assessment. I am sure that the minister also noticed the Shetland Islands Council motion this week, which expressed its complete opposition to HIAL’s plans because there has been no discussion on public transport options or who would pay for them, no consideration of the inevitable parking fiasco that would take place around the airport, and, above all, no assessment of how the charge would hit local working people.

It is one of the ironies of politics that, in the month when the Government wants the Parliament to vote for the Islands (Scotland) Bill and island proofing, this tax is being imposed on islands and will hit their economic and social vitality. It will take some selling by the most persuasive of ministers—and Mr Yousaf is certainly that—to convince islanders that island proofing is now any more than window dressing.

The only argument that HIAL and the minister have for parking charges is the need to save money. HIAL is owned by ministers and receives an annual Government grant, so if the Government has cut its budget, car parking charges are the result. The minister could, of course, reverse that cut.

However, I have a proposal that would save money without hitting islanders. It is a proposal that was made five years ago and dismissed by HIAL. At that time, HIAL was asked to change the heating system at the Sumburgh terminal building to biomass. The capital cost would have been repaid in three years, the annual saving was £100,000 a year and there are obvious environmental benefits. What did HIAL do? It did nothing. If we multiply that £100,000 annual saving across HIAL’s estate, the total would probably be more than the £400,000 that it claims would be raised by parking charges. I accept that the figures would need to be updated, but the suggestion that there are no financial alternatives to car parking is simply not true.

I say to the minister: please halt this tax on island life. It is a tax that undermines the air discount scheme, which I support, and I endorse the minister’s steps in that area. I ask him to instruct HIAL to conduct a proper assessment of their operations, as I have been told that they have not done that. If HIAL will not do that, he should get rid of the board—a board with no island knowledge—and appoint people who can run the company efficiently. No islander believes that, if the £3 a day charge is introduced, it will stay at £3. The money is being used to balance the HIAL budget—that is clear from parliamentary answers and other sources. If the Government cuts the HIAL grant, or the management makes a complete mess of centralising air traffic control in Inverness, which many believe will happen, what will HIAL do? It will increase the car parking charges.

Finally, I observe to colleagues that, if they represent an airport that is so far exempt from this air tax, that will not last long. If the principle is conceded at Sumburgh, Kirkwall and Stornoway, the airports where people do not currently pay for parking will be next.

When I was transport minister, HIAL asked me to approve car parking charges in the islands. I said no—actually, I said a bit more than no, but I will not use unparliamentary language. All my successors have said no as well, and I thank them for that. I have given our current minister a real alternative to hitting islanders with this new tax. I suggest that he, too, says no to HIAL, and I ask him to do so today.

12:50  

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I thank Tavish Scott for securing the debate. For the record, I add my support to the motion, although I agree that it is sad that we have to debate the subject.

I do not support HIAL’s decision to impose car parking fees on airports that serve island communities in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles. A cost of £3 a day might not seem like much, but that soon adds up when travellers are away for an extended period. It is not fair for those who work offshore or for those who can receive medical treatment only outside the islands.

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

It is important for the member to acknowledge that it has already been said that those who are travelling for medical reasons would not have to pay the charge. Will he acknowledge that?

Edward Mountain

I certainly acknowledge that those people who have to travel for medical reasons do not have to pay the charge, but what about their families who want to go to see them? I absolutely believe that it is critically important for families to visit relatives who are sick and away for treatment. It aids recovery, and those people should not have to pay, either.

Some might say that, if people do not want to take the bus, they should pay a parking fee. However, that is not always a practical solution, and intermittent public transport provision on the islands does not facilitate the use of the transport in that way.

I am also unconvinced that the fee will pay for itself. How much will it cost to police the car parking charge? How much will it cost to introduce ticketing machines? How much will it cost to introduce barriers? What will be the cost of the administration that will be needed to deal with the fines that will no doubt follow if people do not pay? The policy will not be cost-effective, and I do not believe that the costs are justifiable.

It is not just about cost; it is also about the manner in which HIAL made its decision to introduce car parking charges, which was, to put it mildly, pretty arrogant. No wonder those who depend on the airports—businesses, and especially families—are angry. I agree with them; I would be angry, too. To take this course of action without consulting communities, especially those that are impacted, is completely unacceptable. Further, rubbing salt in the wound by surveying the passengers after the decision has already been made just adds insult to injury.

No doubt HIAL is facing financial challenges. However, pressing ahead with its preconceived solutions without inviting feedback and discussing with airport users what it should do and what the alternatives are is wrong. In my two years as an MSP, I have seen far too many decision makers ignore the voices of local communities. Lessons have to be learned. Trust can break down between those communities and the decision makers, especially when local approval has not been sought. Whether we are talking about matters relating to healthcare provision, the closure of rural schools or the downgrading of sewage treatment facilities, decision makers must listen to communities. If HIAL wanted to bring the communities that it serves along with it, it should have come up with a workable solution in collaboration with those communities.

HIAL needs to think again. Introducing car parking fees is not the best way forward. I urge it to scrap its policy and work with communities and all parties to find a better solution.

12:54  

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I, too, congratulate Tavish Scott on securing the debate on an important issue for our island communities.

It added insult to injury that the process began with the announcement of the parking charges and then, when there was a public uproar, HIAL decided to consult on implementation. The consultation is not on whether there should be parking charges—consultation on that has never taken place—but on implementation.

HIAL has said that it will look at ways to ensure that those travelling for health purposes will not have to pay the parking fee. It is my understanding that that is part of the consultation process that is taking place. It seems that HIAL is doing this on the hoof. It has not thought about it. It has not spoken to anyone, and there are unintended consequences that it now needs to deal with. That is unacceptable.

Tavish Scott talked about the average cost to a family going on holiday if it had to park a car at the airport. That does not take into account that people already have to pay more. They have paid for their holiday, but they have to pay for flights to the mainland to access that holiday. Sometimes they are paying twice as much already. This charge will make a family holiday even less accessible, especially for people who are not on high wages.

There is also an economic impact. Our islands suffer from depopulation, and we need to do something to reverse that. Lately, people are living on the islands but working elsewhere. Offshore workers are a common example, but people do that in other walks of life, too. They want their family to have the quality of life that they can get from island living, but are forced to work elsewhere to sustain them. The charge will add a cost to them as well as other people who need to travel for economic reasons, such as small and medium-sized businesses, the voluntary sector and many others.

It could put people off living on islands. It could be the difference between being able to stay or not. People might have to consider moving to the mainland, because the charge will add to the additional costs that they are already facing with flights. This is not a good idea. It also adds costs to the public sector, which is struggling in the islands because of austerity. This will add a cost to them when their staff need to travel off the islands, and will be another detriment.

The charge does not take account of the distances and the spread-out communities that the airports serve. We have many small islands that people need to drive from, such as Unst or Yell. The distance from Lerwick to Sumburgh is huge, but coming from those islands makes it a very long journey, with no alternative but to drive. Passengers from Leverburgh are 60 miles from Stornoway airport. Public transport is not available. It is adding insult to injury that there is no public transport to get to the airport, and there is then a charge to park.

There is a wider issue with HIAL. I will touch briefly on the centralisation of air traffic control. That is detrimental to our island communities also. HIAL did well in training local people who were rooted in their communities in air traffic control. Now it is saying to those people who applied for the jobs and did the training that they will have to move. That will have a knock-on impact on local economies. We cannot ignore that.

We have the Islands (Scotland) Bill. This charge is being sneaked through before the bill becomes law. If we are serious about island proofing, we need to stop this—and the other issues with HIAL—happening. It is a publicly owned company that provides lifeline services. These policies are letting down the communities that HIAL has been set up to serve and are certainly not contributing to lifeline services.

12:58  

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I start by echoing the concerns that were expressed by Rhoda Grant in relation to centralisation of air traffic control services, which is an issue to which Parliament will return.

I apologise to you, Presiding Officer, the minister and Parliament, because I must soon absent myself to attend the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing, which is about to start, in one minute.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

If you had told me earlier, I would have called you earlier, Mr McArthur. It is a worthy cause that you are leaving us for.

Liam McArthur

I will not hold that against you, Presiding Officer.

For obvious reasons, I wish to participate in the debate. I thank Tavish Scott for allowing Parliament the opportunity to discuss an issue that will have ramifications for the communities that I represent. Tavish Scott graphically set out the case against the introduction of airport car parking charges at Sumburgh and the real challenges that it will present.

I accept that circumstances in Orkney are slightly different. Kirkwall airport is much closer to the main population centre, and there is a bus service in operation. However, all three airports share similarities. They are gateways for islanders who are accessing lifeline air services, which are already costly. Bus options for people who do not live in Kirkwall are limited or non-existent. In addition, there is a suspicion that the charge will be the thin end of the wedge—a cash cow that HIAL will go on milking whenever it feels the need to do so. HIAL has insisted that it had no option but to introduce parking charges. Whether or not that is the case, the way that it has gone about doing it, as all three previous speakers have said, is wholly unacceptable.

In Orkney, we have been here before. Back in 2008, similar proposals, albeit that they were targeted solely at Kirkwall airport, were unveiled, only to be hastily dumped a few months later after HIAL failed to answer even the most basic questions. Unfortunately, the U-turn did not come quickly enough to avoid the installation at the airport of parking-ticket machines, which had to be hastily concealed with bin bags and gaffer tape. Fast-forward a decade, and it seems that none of the lessons have been learned.

Despite the earlier ham-fisted attempt to impose car parking charges, Inglis Lyon and the HIAL board chose to embark on the latest attempt without any prior consultation whatever. As Tavish Scott reminded Parliament, HIAL’s strategic plan talks of a commitment to

“effective collaboration with airport users and stakeholders.”

However, not only were stakeholders, including all three councils, not informed in advance, but HIAL’s own airport consultative committees were left in the dark. I should know, because I was there. During a three-hour meeting in the St Magnus centre, not one mention was made of the prospect of car parking charges, which were subsequently announced a mere three weeks later. Whatever the legal requirements on HIAL, its failure to be up front and open, and to consult those who will be affected, is shameful.

I accept that there are issues, and that there is possibly a debate to be had. For some time now, concerns have been expressed about capacity issues at Kirkwall airport at certain times of the week. There is also a suspicion that cars are being dumped there for safe keeping, free of charge. However, although there is undoubtedly an issue, I presume that there are other ways to identify the vehicles concerned and to have them removed or to apply fines.

I would also support efforts to improve the existing bus service. Nonetheless, we need to recognise that even with significant improvements to the service, taking the bus will not be a practical or realistic option for many people who live in rural parishes or those who catch early-morning flights.

Another group whose interests appear to have been largely overlooked by HIAL in developing its proposals are those from the smaller isles in Orkney. The community councils of Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay, for example, have highlighted the disproportionate impact that the charges will have on residents of those islands, whose ferry services do not enable them readily to take a car over to the mainland.

HIAL has offered to take those concerns on board, but that rather underscores the benefit of carrying out a consultation before a decision is made on what to do. Tavish Scott is absolutely right: HIAL’s lack of transparency and piecemeal approach to the issue is not acceptable. We need a thorough review of operations and full consultation of local communities. Until that happens, the proposals will remain discredited.

13:03  

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I congratulate Tavish Scott on bringing the debate to the chamber. I apologise to him and to you, Presiding Officer, for missing the start of his opening speech.

I am an Orcadian, and Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd is my local operator. I declare an interest as a regular user of its services, alongside many thousands of local people, businesses and visitors who travel to and from—and within—the Highlands and Islands region every year. HIAL operates for public benefit in a region where there are many remote communities. Uniquely, it is tasked with overcoming that geographic isolation and connecting the Highlands and Islands, not only to the rest of the country, but to the rest of the world. A journey might start at Sumburgh, but it might end in Stornoway, Stansted or even Sydney. Our local airports are just the first part of our air bridge to the world.

The task with which HIAL is trusted is essential if we wish to see the Highlands and Islands grow and prosper in the future, but it is clear that that must be done in line with the wishes of local people and with respect to local organisations, and in particular with respect to representatives who are elected to councils and other authorities to reflect local opinion. That is at least part of the reason why so much attention has been paid to HIAL’s announcement on parking charges. I certainly do not support the policy as it stands and—perhaps more important—I object to the way in which it has been brought about.

As the motion points out, HIAL’s strategic plan pledged

“effective collaboration with airport users and stakeholders”.

Unfortunately, that commitment has flown off into the sunset.

Let us not forget that we are talking about a state-owned company that has received millions of pounds in subsidies from the taxpayer. It also operates services that are, in many cases, lifeline links for people travelling to the mainland for medical appointments, to access public services or to stay in touch with friends and family. Local people, businesses and visitors alike depend on them.

I am not blind to the pressures that HIAL faces—the need to maintain and improve facilities, while balancing budgets. With proper consultation, HIAL would have had the opportunity to explain those pressures to the local communities, and perhaps it would even have been able to create proposals that would have gained widespread support and which were, by reflecting and recognising specific local issues, more sensitive to local needs.

Tomorrow morning, I will likely use the airport bus service in Kirkwall. I recognise that alternatives to driving exist, but they are not available to or suitable for everyone, as my colleague Edward Mountain said. Even where alternatives exist, they do not negate the need for a fair approach to parking.

However, my concerns are not just with HIAL. At times it seems that the Scottish Government has faced two ways on the matter. In response to a question on 26 April from Tavish Scott, the Minster for Transport and the Islands has responded that consultation would be undertaken between the announcement and its implementation on “practical implementation issues”, as if that is fine and reasonable.

However, the First Minister, when questioned about the consultation on 22 March, said:

“If it is the case that there was no consultation, that was remiss”.—[Official Report, 22 March 2018; c 17.]

Those two positions cannot be held together. Indeed, most pressing is the Minister’s statement that

“the Scottish Government has been kept informed of HIAL’s proposals throughout their development”.—[Written Answers, 26 April 2018; S5W-15396.]

before the announcement was made. Did the Scottish Government not think at any time that it would be worth talking to the local authorities ahead of time, rather than simply communicating the decision to them? Did it not think of asking HIAL what the airports’ individual consultative committees—which were set up to build contact between the airports and local residents—had to say on the matter?

The connections are not just a local matter; we all have an interest in making sure that the Highlands and Islands is a positive destination in which to live, work and do business. HIAL is now belatedly surveying local opinion. However, I encourage HIAL—and the Scottish Government—to learn from the experience and to involve communities directly in decision making about their public services from the outset.

13:07  

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

I am happy to wind up the debate on behalf of the Government. It follows on from a helpful meeting that I had with Tavish Scott, Councillor Ryan Thomson and the council leader, Steven Coutts, when I was in Shetland, in Lerwick, on the 27 April. I generally get along very well with Tavish Scott on issues concerning Shetland and the council, but I am afraid that on this issue there is a fair amount of disagreement. However, I do have some sympathy with some of the issues that he raised, and I will touch upon those where I can.

First, it will be helpful to give some context on the HIAL estate. It operates 11 airports on behalf of the Scottish Government. All those must operate within a strict regulatory environment that ensures the safety and security of passengers, staff and crew. It is also probably worth mentioning that, although HIAL is described as a company that is subsidised by the Government, all the moneys that HIAL raises are reinvested in air services and the airport estate. None of it is skimmed off the top for shareholders. It is a not-for-profit organisation: everything is reinvested. Therefore, the measure is being taken forward purely to ensure that services to and from our island communities are sustainable for the long term.

Many members will know that car parking charges are already in place at Inverness and Dundee airports, and will come into effect at Kirkwall, Stornoway and Sumburgh from 1 July. The charges will be £3 an hour in each 24-hour period.

Rhoda Grant

It seems to be a pointless exercise to consult on the matter now. The minister has confirmed that the charges are coming in. HIAL announced them without any consultation. Surely it is not right to make that policy change without consultation.

Humza Yousaf

I was going to touch on the consultation later, but I will go straight to it, since Rhoda Grant has raised the issue. The consultation is taking place from when the announcement was made in the middle of March to when the car parking charges come into effect. It is looking at practical implementation and where there might be benefits or concessions.

Some of those have already been raised by passengers. Just over 500 responses have been received from passengers; they might well focus on jobseekers or people who live furthest from the airport, especially in Shetland. Some passengers have mentioned apprenticeships. However, if Rhoda Grant is suggesting that there should have been a consultation on who wants to pay parking charges at their airport, I cannot imagine that many people would agree. Who on earth wants to pay more, or wants to pay now when they have not previously? Is she suggesting that we should not bring in measures because people do not want to do something? If so, HIAL would have to cut services or not reinvest in its estate. To me, that does not seem to be a practical way of taking forward what I am sure will be deeply unpopular measures. At the same time, they have to be brought in because we have to make the air services sustainable.

Rhoda Grant

I acknowledge that the measure will be deeply unpopular—of course it will—but the lifeline services are already expensive enough. People can ill afford them. The charges will add another cost to living on the islands, which simply because of geography enjoy a less buoyant economy. Surely we need to change that.

Humza Yousaf

Let me continue with that argument. As I said, the measure will be deeply unpopular. I do not think that anybody wants to pay more for anything; that is generally accepted. Consulting on practical implementation of the proposal is important, and HIAL is genuinely doing that with an open mind. When it finishes its consultation, I suspect that some element of concession will come in.

However, we are talking about sustainability of air services. Tavish Scott made a proposal—it was the first time that I have heard it—about heating systems, which we should look at. I do not know about the exact figures that Mr Scott quoted, but the figure for the subsidy that is required for Sumburgh airport, in revenue terms, is more than £500,000. That is a significant figure just for Sumburgh.

The other proposal that Tavish Scott and Councillor Ryan Thomson made in good faith, and which has been well thought out by them, was that an extra 40p be added to Loganair’s landing charges. That might be another method of income generation. However, Loganair has said that if that was to be put into effect, it might have to cut a flight from Glasgow and one of the Aberdeen flights. I suspect that that would be even more unpopular and would go against what Rhoda Grant is talking about.

Edward Mountain

One of the questions that I asked in my speech was whether the proposal would be cost effective. The minister has mentioned the cost of running services. Before a charge such as this is introduced, I assume that the minister will work out how much it will cost to run and how much revenue he will get from it. I suggest that the revenue will be pretty limited.

Humza Yousaf

HIAL has the information about how much that will cost. Of course it will revise and review figures as necessary. Edward Mountain can speak to HIAL about that; it will be able to provide some figures. I do not know whether the member has met HIAL to discuss the issue; he certainly has not written to me about it, despite seeming to be outraged about it.

The figures exist. Of course, there will be some commercial sensitivity, but HIAL is introducing the charges so that it can make sure that our air services are sustainable. There is no other reason: HIAL is a not-for-profit organisation.

Tavish Scott

I take the minister’s point about savings. However, if it turns out that replacing the heating systems at Sumburgh and other parts of the estate can save the kind of money that I have been told about by people who understand the issue, will he undertake to make sure that that is done, rather than putting in place the car parking fees? It would achieve the same objective of saving money.

Humza Yousaf

I certainly undertake to look in all good faith at Tavish Scott’s proposals, if he can provide me with good detail. HIAL is doing what it is doing in order to make the air services sustainable for the future.

Although I respect that Tavish Scott has brought the debate on behalf of his constituents, the correspondence that has come in has not been overwhelming. I have received nine pieces of correspondence on Sumburgh. I do not think that there has been any correspondence from Jamie Halcro Johnston—it is certainly not on my record—and I have certainly not had any from Edward Mountain. Correspondence that I have received about Stornoway and Kirkwall airports is in single figures. That suggests to me that people understand that HIAL is doing this to ensure that air services are sustainable in the future.

Tavish Scott is the only member to have made alternative proposals to me, but if there are other alternative proposals, I will look at them and ask HIAL to look at them in good faith. This is about sustainability of air services to our islands. The measures that are being brought in are proportionate and will help to safeguard those air services. All members can agree that that can only be a good thing.

13:15 Meeting suspended.  14:30 On resuming—