Plans by Highlands and Islands Airport Ltd (HIAL) to introduce car parking charges at Kirkwall, Sumburgh and Stornaway airports will be debated in the Scottish Parliament this week thanks to my Shetland colleague, Tavish Scott MSP.
Reflecting concerns felt in all three island communities, Tavish lodged a parliamentary motion last month that has now attracted support from MSPs of all parties, with the exception of the SNP. As the Transport Minister, Humza Yousaf signed off HIAL’s proposals, however, this lack of support from his colleagues for Tavish’s motion is perhaps no real surprise.
Of course, we’ve been here before. Back in 2008, similar proposals, albeit targeted solely at Kirkwall airport, were unveiled only to be unceremoniously dumped a few months later after HIAL’s failure to answer even the most basic questions about the operation of and justification for a charging regime that singled out Kirkwall. Somewhat embarrassingly for HIAL, this u-turn came too late to avoid ticket machines being installed at Kirkwall airport which were then hastily hidden from view using black bin bags and Gaffa tape.
Fast forward a decade and it seems few lessons have been learned from that ham-fisted misadventure. Given that HIAL’s Chief Executive, Inglis Lyon, was in post then as now, he at least should have been alive to the risks. Despite that, Mr Lyon chose to embark on this latest attempt to impose car parking charges, at all three island airports this time, without any prior consultation whatsoever.
For avid followers of HIAL’s Strategic Plan, this will have come as something of a surprise given the Plan’s solemn promise that HIAL is committed to “effective collaboration with airport users and stakeholders”. Yet not only were stakeholders, including all three Councils, not informed in advance, HIAL’s own Airport Consultative Committees were also left in the dark. I know because I was there. During a three-hour meeting in the St Magnus Centre back in January, not once were car parking charges mentioned. Little wonder the chair of the Sumburgh Committee, Jimmy Smith expressed ‘fury’ both at the decision and the way it was taken.
This is not to say that opposition to the proposed charges is universal. For some time now concerns have been raised about a lack of available spaces in the car park at Kirkwall airport at certain times of the week. The suspicion has long been that a number of vehicles are simply ‘dumped’ there for safe-keeping, free of charge. Yet, while there is undoubtedly an issue, presumably other ways exist for identifying the vehicles concerned and having them removed or charges applied.
Others point to the bus service running between the Kirkwall Travel Centre and the airport, and opportunities for enhanced this and encouraging a greater use of public transport. I would certainly support such a move, but even with significant expansion of the service, it will remain an unrealistic or impractical option for many, particularly those from more rural parishes needing to catch early morning flights.
The other group whose interests appear to have been largely overlooked by HIAL in developing their proposals are those from the smaller isles. The Community Councils in Papay and North Ronaldsay, for example, have highlighted the disproportionate impact the charges would have on residents of both islands, whose ferry service does not enable them readily to take a car over to the mainland. Mr Lyon has offered to take these concerns on board, though it does rather illustrate why consulting before making a decision is generally preferable.
On the upside, patients travelling to hospital appointments in Aberdeen or elsewhere on the Scottish mainland are thankfully to be exempt from paying, although precise details about how this exemption will be applied are still being finalized ahead of the scheme’s planned introduction in July.
Meantime, having been shamed into consulting the public, HIAL is inviting comments until 14 May. I would certainly encourage anyone with strong views on the issue to email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org
Before then, on Thursday this week, MSPs will have their say. Given the already high cost of accessing our lifeline air services, I suspect HIAL’s plans for car park charging to experience some parliamentary turbulence.