I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that the Scottish Government’s track record when it comes to centralisation or delivering major IT projects is wholly unblemished. Our police force is still counting the cost of the SNP’s fixation with control from the centre, while farmers remain baffled at how Ministers can spend £180m on a farm payment system that was unable to make payments to farmers.
Undeterred by such trifling details, the Scottish Government is now trying its luck with a centralisation almost entirely reliant on a colossally ambitious new IT infrastructure. Ministers have signed off plans by Highlands & Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) to run air traffic control services across the region, including at Kirkwall airport, entirely from a ‘remote tower’ in Inverness. By the time reality has a chance to catch up with the rhetoric and assertions from HIAL’s management, millions of pounds risk having been spent and the organisation hollowed out.
At this point, I should make clear that while I am regular user of our lifeline air services, I have no in-depth understanding of the technical intricacies of air traffic control. That is why, from the moment HIAL first announced its intentions over two years ago, I have sought the views of ATC staff.
In truth, back then, the impression amongst controllers seemed to be that the ‘remote tower’ model was so impractical in a Highlands & Islands context that it would soon be abandoned. Added weight was given to that assumption by HIAL’s own consultants, whose original report concluded that this was the option that carried the greatest risk and the highest potential cost. Enough to make the remote tower a remote possibility, one might reasonably have thought.
Two years on, however, and last week HIAL’s management announced its intention to proceed to procurement. With so many serious questions hanging over the deliverability of the project and widespread, deep-rooted opposition amongst staff, around 80% of whom have indicated they are ready to leave the organisation, this can only be seen as reckless.
No-one disputes the need for modernisation of air traffic control services across the region, including radar surveillance and controlled airspace. Indeed, HIAL’s consultants identified ways in which this could be achieved at a fraction of the cost or risk of the remote tower model.
Yet, rather than engage with the concerns being raised by their own staff about safety, resilience and the delivery of what are lifeline air services to our island and rural communities, HIAL has simply ticked boxes to say they have consulted while ignoring any and all objections. The assumptions made about the data connections needed across the Highlands & islands to enable a remote tower model to function are truly heroic and raise significant doubts about the costs quoted by HIAL.
Of perhaps even greater, immediate concern, however, is the real prospect that staff will begin leaving the organisation, either to take up better paid posts elsewhere or simply retiring. If that happens, HIAL will struggle to support the delivery of existing air services at Kirkwall and its other airports. Moreover, how can it press on with centralising services without the personnel needed to help train those it hopes to bring into the organisation.
Local Councils have also been expressing their concerns, not least about the loss of well-paid, high skilled jobs in our island communities. Surely this is precisely the sort of situation for which island impact assessments, introduced under the 2018 Islands Act, are tailored made.
Sadly, that hasn’t happened to date, as successive Transport Ministers have been happy to wave through the proposals with little robust scrutiny. That cannot be allowed to continue.
So this week, I will raise the matter again with the Minister at Topical Questions and then during a debate on the issue, led by my Shetland colleague, Beatrice Wishart. This will provide an opportunity for Highlands & Islands MSPs from all parties to voice our collective unease with HIAL’s plans and the way they are being steamrollered into place.
If a costly IT project aimed at centralising services does not have alarm bells ringing in the Scottish Government, Ministers and their officials clearly haven’t been paying attention over recent years.