MINISTER VISITS UIST AMID DEPOPULATION AND HOUSING CONCERNS
Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees, Emma Roddick, visited Uist in October prior to the release of the new Rural and Islands Housing Action Plan and her own constituent engagement survey.
Kareen MacRury, Uist Settlement Officer, organised a short programme of meetings for the minister including discussing her own work in helping people to move to the islands.
The housing theme carried over to a visit to the Tagsa Uibhist Community Gardens to discuss the recent Our Right to Food report as well as other population related concerns from Tagsa. Tagsa Uibhist CEO, Chris MacLullich, said: “We spoke about the usual challenges: housing, workforce, etc. She also said that there is a fund to convert unused housing to create new housing but this is for local authorities and there doesn’t seem to be any housing stock available for this here.”
Ms Roddick said: “The lack of affordable housing is a key factor driving depopulation. Public services and local businesses are being impacted due to a lack of staff, young people are moving out of their hometowns and taking jobs elsewhere, and ageing populations left behind are struggling to find care and support locally.”
The 2022 Scotland Census shows a 5.6% decrease in population from the previous census in 2011, the biggest percentage decrease in Scotland, and a 2020 report from the Highlands and Islands convention predicts a population loss of 14% between 2016 and 2041.
On 13 October, Housing Minister Paul MacLennan released the new Rural and Islands Housing Action Plan, which sets out how the remote, rural and islands communities of Scotland could benefit from the ScotGov Housing to 2040 plan. The plan sets out to build 110,000 homes across Scotland by 2032 with 10% in remote, rural and island communities.
The scheme takes its definition of ‘remote, rural and island communities’ from Scottish Government’s Urban Rural Classification 2020 guidelines, which describes ‘remote’ as those areas more than a 30 minute drive time of a settlement with a population of 10,000 or more.
Ms Roddick welcomed the plan saying: “The sustainability of our rural and island communities is vital to Scotland’s future, but we are currently seeing significant depopulation and rising house prices in many of these areas. That is why this action plan is so important for sustaining these communities. Providing affordable housing will help protect our rural and island communities, letting people stay where they want to live and continue to thrive.”
There is also a plan to introduce legislation enabling councils to charge a 100% premium on council tax for second homes. In Uist, 169 homes were registered as ‘secondary letting’ under the new Short Term Let regulation.
In the meeting with the minister, Ms MacRury set out the work being delivered under the Uist Repopulation Zone Action Plan, which included liaising with the Uist and Barra Housing Group project and Rural Housing Scotland to address housing concerns. This work will now be taken forward by Christina Morrison, who has taken on the role of Settlement Officer.
MP vows to stay on
Angus McNeil’s growing rift with the SNP came to a head last month with his formal expulsion from the party he has served for more than 20 years.
Under UK Parliamentary rules, by-elections are triggered when a candidate resigns or dies, is declared bankrupt, is convicted of a serious criminal offence or takes a seat in the House of Lords; an MP’s change of political party does not automatically trigger a by-election.
Mr MacNeil no longer represents the party under which he was elected but has said he will continue in post as an independent representative, adding that he hoped to rejoin the SNP in time to stand on their ticket at the next election.
Mr MacNeil told Am Pàipear:
“There are many good people in the SNP and tremendous activists in all the islands. Following my suspension, I decided not to rejoin the SNP Westminster Group however I did keep my rank and file SNP membership but an SNP committee then decided to expel me. Perhaps in time to come wiser heads will prevail. What needs to happen is not expelling SNP members but focusing on independence and using elections which is the only option as referendums are blocked.
“The change in status has not changed my working life in Westminster. Despite the hype surrounding this, the reality is actually quite dull and boring and it makes no difference whatsoever. My constituents will notice no difference.”
Asked if, by leaving the SNP fold, he had reduced his influence on Scottish Government policy,Mr MacNeil said:
“I have always been quite free of party lines and spoke about things as I saw them. The sway on issues such as keeping airt raffic control jobs at Benbecula a number of years ago or against the HPMAs today is down to the force of the argument, not the status you have within a party.”
Mr MacNeil refuted claims that his departure would offer an opportunity to Labour:
“I have not left an open door for Labour in the Western Isles. Labour is more deeply unattractive as they adopt more and more Conservative policies.
“My move has made people talk more about independence; more and more people are understanding that we need independence and it is time that those in the highest levels of the SNP grasp that urgency.”
Angus MacNeil had been one of the SNP’s longest serving MPs and one of Scotland’s highest profile UK Parliamentarians. Less than a year after taking up his post in Westminster, he came to prominence calling for House of Lords reform, helping expose the Cash for Peerages scandal of Tony Blair’s Government. In 2007 and 2016, his extra-marital romantic exploits were exposed in the tabloid press and in May 2022, he faced a three month ban and a £1500 fine for dangerous driving, following a road traffic collision in Barra two years before.
With the next general election not far away, Mr MacNeil’s change of status has left this constituency in an interesting position.
The Western Isles has elected only three candidates in the last 53 years, each of them serving for a term of 17-18 years; Donald Stewart, SNP, 1970-1987, Calum, MacDonald, Labour, 1987 – 2005 and Angus MacNeil, SNP 2005-present.
As Am Pàipear went to print, the only candidate to confirm a challenge to Mr MacNeil is Lewis- based journalist Torcuil Crichton, who is standing and actively campaigning for the Labour Party. The SNP, the Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have all confirmed that they will be selecting and then fielding candidates but have yet to reveal names; the Scottish Christian Party and the Scottish Green Party were not ready to confirm their position.
Anas Sarwar hears the case for Uist
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar was in the Western Isles last month with Highlands & Islands MSP Rhoda Grant and prospective Na h-Eileanan an Iar candidate Torcuil Crichton.
The Uist leg of the tour included meetings in Claddach Kirkibost, Benbecula, Grimsay, Daliburgh and Polachar, with business and community leaders setting out the issues and opportunities Uist faced.
Our failing ferry service was high on the agenda of those who met with the Labour leader.
At the time of the visit, CalMac was in the midst of another spate of confusing service disruptions and the issue was being argued back and forth on Radio Scotland’s popular Kaye Adams phone-in show.
Commenting on the ferry situation, Anas Sarwar said: ”People are sick of apologies, sick of warm words. It’s devastating these communities. The system is broken and the Government’s excuses are just not cutting it. The challenge I am setting myself, Torcuil and the wider party is to demonstrate how we are going to change things; how we are going to deliver an alternative.”
Mr Crichton believed that one unified organisation based in the islands would put an end to the ‘continual passing the parcel of responsibility’ between CalMac, CMAL and Scottish Government:
“We wouldn’t have got to where we are today if there had been island representation on the boards of the agencies that are meant to be serving the islands but are actually only serving themselves.”
Mr Sarwar said that in the short term, businesses should be compensated for their losses, but added that longer term solutions needed to be evolved in partnership with island communities.
When Am Pàipear asked the Labour leader if he saw cause to hope, he replied: “I am 100% confident that we can and will find a solution, but we need to be led by the community.
“Despite the despair, there is huge opportunity here, but the islands need a Government that is on their side.”
Mr Crichton added: “Thirty years ago, when I was a journalist here, the talk at a round table event like the one we attended today would have been ‘what can we do to make this place work?’ Now, the economy is actually bursting with opportunity; the place is running like a fair, but it is being held back by structures and institutions that haven’t changed in 30 years.”
The politicians said that meeting after meeting had highlighted the issues of a one size fits all Scotland, where policy devised in Edinburgh was just not working for island communities.
“HPMAs are a perfect demonstration of central Scotland policy designed in Holyrood with no connection to the islands and no idea of the impact on communities” said Mr Sarwar.
Mr Chrichton added: “Affordable housing is another example. The unit price Government allocates for social housing in Glasgow or Edinburgh is not going work here in the islands, where the cost of materials is so much higher.”
Summing up his visit for Am Pàipear readers, Anas Sarwar said:
“I had a tremendous week in the Western Isles. Over almost 200 miles of travel and over a dozen different meetings with Labour’s candidate Torcuil Crichton and Rhoda Grant MSP, I learnt a lot.
“I saw first-hand the incredible potential the islands have. But to unlock that future they need a Government on their side.
“I heard directly about how cancelled ferries mean missed cancer appointments, lack of supplies coming in and businesses in danger of going to the wall.
“I also heard how the HPMA consultation left people feeling threatened by an out of touch SNP government in Holyrood that takes islanders for granted. I got the message loud and clear – the HPMA proposals are not acceptable.
“Six years ago Humza Yousaf, then SNP Minister for Transport and the Islands said that resolving the Western Isles’ ferry crisis was a ‘priority’.
“Islanders are still waiting, the situation is worse and Humza Yousaf is First Minister.
“This can’t wait any longer. Millions of pounds are being lost, people need support right now.
“That’s why Labour has called for a compensation scheme while the ferry chaos continues.
“The challenge I am setting myself, Torcuil and Scottish Labour is to demonstrate how we can work together to deliver for you.”
Comhairle take tough decisions to balance the books
The Comhairle met in February to agree its budget for the coming financial year.
Elected members were presented with an estimated budget deficit of £6.4m and were asked to support £2.7m of service cuts and charge increases, as well as an unprecedented drawdown of Comhairle Reserves to ensure a balanced book.
The Comhairle says that Scottish Government’s financial settlement represented a real term reduction in allocation once ring fenced commitments, pay awards and inflationary pressures were accounted for.
Scottish Government’s allocation for the Western Isles in 2023/24 is £108.6m, a £4.9m (4.7%) increase on last year’s settlement. Inflation is still running at over 10%, a very slight reduction on the previous two months but still significantly more than the standard inflation allowances of between 2‐3%, included in the Comhairle budget.
The Comhairle says a 59% hike in electricity bills and substantial increases across other charges equated to £2.5m of additional expenditure.
The Budget Report set out a raft of individual projects and services targeted for cost savings, including the ‘removal of 4 posts in Secondary Schools without backfill’, a ‘reduction to the number of Support for Learning Staff in Schools’, a ‘review of the lease for the Old Carinish School’, a ‘review of the need for Library Vans’, and an ‘above inflation increase to charges at Stornoway Abattoir’.
The Comhairle also said it would ‘explore options to reduce arts grants to partners over three financial years: An Lanntair, Taigh Chersabhaigh, HebCelt, Eilean Dorcha and Fèisean nan Gaidheal – to be followed up for future years.’
To help fund the service, the Comhairle agreed a 5% uplift in Council Tax, increasing annual charges by £61.46 for a Band D property. Scottish Water also determined a 5% increase in its charges, taking Band D water rates to £502.29. Together these charges will see bills of £1793.04 per year for Band D homes.
The planned use of reserves forms the third peg in the Comhairle’s budget strategy. The usual policy of keeping back an emergency fund of £3.5m to mitigate against risks and unforeseen expenditure remains in place, but the pressures of the last few years have reduced the levels of uncommitted reserves. From a Reserves position of £4m last year, the Budget now sees uncommitted reserves of around £1m, which the Report concludes is a risk:
“The rapid increase in costs in the current financial year continues to require significant revisions to the budget, which can in the short term be funded mainly from reserves. The Comhairle’s Budget Strategy, for a number of years, has depended on a phased use of reserves, together with service savings, to achieve a balanced budget. This approach has been effective but with the use of these reserves in the current year, the reserves available to support future years are diminishing to levels which render future support questionable.”
Cllr Susan Thomson put forward an amendment to the Comhairle’s budget, asking that the rate of Council Tax be frozen at current levels. Cllr Thomson’s amendment stated: “This Council, recognising the real hardship faced by many members of our community working hard to strive for their families to have a warm home and decent food on the table, wishes to support them, and for this reason will not add to their financial burden by increasing their Council Tax bills.”
Speaking in defence of the Council Tax rise, Leader, Cllr Paul Steele said: “None of us wish to see a rise in Council Tax charges, but equally we do not want to see our services cut further. Not progressing a 5% increase in charges will severely risk our ability to protect those who are hardest pressed and most in need of our services.”
A further amendment was out forward by Stornoway Cllr Dr Frances Murray, who asked that proposals to cut secondary teaching posts and reduce the Support for Learning service be rejected and that cuts to the library service be held back until a full review was completed.
Both amendments were debated but not upheld, and the budget was passed as presented.
Cllr Steele said: “This budget comes before the Comhairle at a time of unprecedented pressures on both our revenue and capital budgets, and on public sector finance in Scotland generally.
“Added to these pressures have been significant and fluctuating increases in the costs of, well, everything: fuel, energy, commodities, construction materials, food and travel, in fact everything which contributes to people’s wellbeing and to a functioning economy.
“All of these have conspired to bring about a cost-of-living crisis not just for individuals and households but also for the organisations and authorities such as the Comhairle which support the community with our jobs, our services and our political advocacy.
“Having managed the largest funding reduction of any Local Authority in Scotland during the last term we have protected frontline services to the public as much as possible with a prudent, sensible approach to the realities of the financial situation we have found ourselves in but it’s been a process of transformation and cuts that has left many services stretched.”
The Comhairle has tried and failed to recruit a Strategic Finance Director and has now engaged the services of a consultant to progress its financial strategy.
Overspends and underspends on the table at the Western Isles Integrated Joint Board
At its February meeting, the Western Isles Integrated Joint Board (IJB) issued a budget update, setting out an initial funding gap of £6.664m against the £78.717m required to deliver delegated and set aside functions.
The IJB says that reserves of £1.948m have been assigned to the Goathill Complex in Stornoway over the next three years, which taken together with other savings such as a £500k reduction in spend associated with vacancies and unfilled posts, will allow them to more than halve the budget gap from £6.664m to £3.019m.
Across services, vacant posts are being covered by costly agency and locum staff, adding to overspends across social care and medical services, including £546k over budget on medical consultants and specialist doctors, £534k overspend as a result of using locum doctors to staff the out of hours GP service, and a further £253k projected overspend at the Uist and Barra Hospital, as a result of using agency and bank staff to cover vacancies and sickness absences.
In psychiatric services, the IJB is carrying a predicted overspend of £710k, as a result of using agency staff for both the day and out-of-hours rota. The Board says that the costs of this approach are ‘crippling, with rates of pay upwards of £140 per hour plus VAT’. The situation is not sustainable, the Board says, and it is looking at ways of reducing costs and will consider whether consultants are required for 24/7 cover.
At the same time, the IJB is reporting an initial £1.266m underspend, which has only be brought down to £392k under budget as a result of agency staffing costs of £874k.
The IJB says it has introduced new measures such as enhanced mileage rates, a retention premium and a grading review with the aim of recruiting local staff in home care.
The IJB received £46,907k from NHS Western Isles, and a further £72,053k from the Comhairle and is charged with delivering a range of health and social care services on behalf of the two bodies.
£393m investment to generate 1,300 jobs across three island groups
The long awaited Islands Growth Deal was finally and formally ratified by the UK and Scottish Governments and the three island Authorities of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles at a special ceremony in Orkney on January 20th.
Uist councillor and Comhairle Leader Paul Steele attended the ceremony, along with Lord Offord of Garvel, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Scotland, Ivan McKee MSP, Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise, Cllr James Stockan, Leader of Orkney Islands Council and Cllr Emma Macdonald, Leader of Shetland Islands Council.
The Islands Growth Deal delivers a joint UK and Scottish Government commitment of a £100 million investment in the future economic prosperity of the three island groups, and is set to generate an anticipated 1,300 jobs and a further £293 million in match funding over the next ten years.
Of the 16 projects and programmes detailed in the Deal, five are specific to the Western Isles, with a further number benefiting across the island groups.
Four Uist projects are expected to benefit from the investment, including the proposed South Uist Food Hub, a Creative Practice Hub at Taigh Chearsabhagh, the St Kilda Viewpoint visitor centre at Beinn Riabhach on North Uist and the Comhairle’s controversial Spaceport development at Scolpaig Farm.
Cllr Steele described the programme as ‘highly ambitious, but achievable’, and thanked the many community and council members who had supported the project from the start.
Cllr Steele said: “The signing of the Islands Growth Deal is both the culmination of a vision set out by the Islands Councils and the UK and Scottish Governments and the beginning of the implementation of that vision.”
It is a milestone towards achieving our aims of securing 1300 jobs and £393m of investment over 10 years through the Islands Deal, using the resources of our Islands and capitalising on our natural assets and most importantly, our people.”
Ivan McKee MSP, Scottish Government Business Minister said: “This Growth Deal will be a game-changing initiative for our islands – enabling sustainable economic growth and delivering new and internationally significant port infrastructure that will play an important role in achieving net zero targets.
“This £50 million Scottish Government investment will support the transition to renewable energy sources – including equipping the workforce with new skills – and trial emissions reduction initiatives on islands. It will drive innovation in key space, food and drink and creative industries sectors; help develop significant tourism and cultural attractions and expand education provision.
“We are determined that our islands should be attractive places to live and work and are able to maximise their contribution to Scotland’s sustainable economic transformation.”
UK Government Minister for Scotland Malcolm Offord said: “This will not just boost local economies and create jobs, but also empower communities to get the most out of the many assets and attributes that make the islands such unique and special places to live.
“This deal is packed with a broad range of high-impact projects, whether it’s leading the transition to net zero or developing ‘must-visit’ destinations such as the St Kilda trail.”
Dedicated vessel for Lochmaddy-Uig run
Transport Scotland has announced the news many islanders have been longing to hear: two new ferries for the Skye triangle routes, allowing for a dedicated boat on both the Lochmaddy and the Tarbert runs.
Whether it was as a result of Audit Scotland’s damning report on ferry procurement, consistent and increasingly vocal pressure from the Uist community, the well-evidenced financial losses faced by local businesses or the continued pressure from our locally elected members is unclear, but Scottish Government does now, finally, appear to be listening.
The two new ferries are to be allocated £115m of additional funding over and above the £580m already allocated for the Clyde and Hebrides ferry network, and a contract for the new vessels is expected to be in place by the end of the year.
The new vessels will be based on the design of the two Islay ferries currently under construction in Turkey. The Islay ferries are 94.8m long and each carry up to 450 passengers, less than half the capacity of ‘Hull 802’, the previous vessel commission intended for the Lochmaddy route.
Minister for Transport Jenny Gilruth said: “Our intention is that these ferries would be deployed on the Skye triangle routes to Lochmaddy and Tarbert, delivering dedicated services to communities in the peak season rather than the shared vessel operation currently in place. This will create the opportunity for significantly increased capacity and resilience for the communities of the Western Isles.
“It will also allow consideration of all options to deploy Vessel 802 on an alternative route, including potentially alongside her sister ship, the MV Glen Sannox, to provide additional capacity to and from Arran in the peak season. All the options will be discussed with island communities at the appropriate time.”
Kevin Hobbs, Chief Executive at CMAL, said: “This is a highly welcome commitment from the Scottish Government, which allows us to increase the pace of vessel replacement plans in line with our ambitions. This additional investment will bring two new vessels to the fleet, meaning a total of six major vessels will be replaced by 2026. It also means communities in Harris and North Uist will benefit from a two vessel service, a move that will strengthen overall resilience.”
The hope will be that this new procurement process will avoid the disastrous mistakes of the ‘Hull 801/802’ contract, which have resulted in the vessel originally marked for the Skye triangle route, still languishing in Glasgow with a price tag more than two and a half times the original contract cost.
While the announcement of a dedicated ferry for the Lochmaddy to Uig route is welcome, concerns about service resilience over the next two years still remain and the situation is far from plain sailing.
Uig pier works, originally commissioned to accommodate a vessel that is now unlikely to grace its pier, will see the Lochmaddy – Skye sailings cancelled from the end of January to the end of March next year, and then again between October and December. With Uig closed, the 33 year old Lord of the Isles, which has suffered a number of technical failings in recent years, will be under greater pressure on a route that is prone to winter cancellations.
Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Chair of the Comhairle’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said: “The Comhairle, and many other local and community groups have been calling for much needed additional capacity and resilience in the CalMac fleet so today’s announcement will be welcomed throughout the Islands.
“Our communities deserve better ferry services than we have been getting and this is a major step forward, one that I hope can be built on in the development of lifeline Island travel services. We look forward to discussing with the Scottish Government, agencies and our communities further improvements that can be made to ferry services including timetabling.”
“We would take this opportunity to thank the Minister, Transport Scotland and CMAL for listening to the case we have made.”
More on the new ferries in Cllr Robertson’s column.
Concerns raised by Accounts Commission
Audit Scotland has expressed serious concerns about how Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CNES) is delivering on its commitment to provide best value for the people of the Western Isles.
The verdict was delivered in the Accounts Commission’s Best Value Assurance Report, the latest in a series of similar assessments running between 2006 and 2014.
The Auditors described the enormous challenges the Comhairle faces, but expressed disappointment that the positive momentum and improvements reported in 2014 had not been maintained.
The Report recognised the enormity of the task ahead, stating: “The Comhairle faces complex challenges: the largest real terms funding decrease of Scottish local authorities; depopulation; poor housing availability; and the most severe fuel poverty in Scotland. This places significant pressures on recruiting staff, particularly in critical areas such as social care.’
The Report highlighted a failure of senior leadership, saying: “Given the significant financial challenges ahead for the Comhairle, we are therefore seriously concerned that we need to again underline the crucial need for elected members to fulfil their leadership responsibilities in providing clear coherent strategic priorities and direction and thus deliver planned savings and improvements.’ The Auditors went on to detail the requirement for suitable support, adding: “We also emphasise the need for members to be supported in their responsibilities by effective training and development, including on their equalities obligations.”
Audit Scotland commended the Comhairle as a strong advocate for the Western Isles, highlighting positive partnership working and good community relations, as well as sound performance in education, local economic support and its apprenticeship programme.
The Comhairle has said it welcomes the newly published report, accepts its recommendations and will be implementing an Action Plan.
A spokesperson for CNES said: “The Comhairle is pleased that there is acknowledgement of the many successful initiatives underway and our good practice in areas such as community engagement, supporting the local economy and, importantly, being a strong advocate for the Islands. Our good collaboration with our partners to bring improvements to the Islands is fundamental to how we work and we welcome its recognition by Audit Scotland.
“The Comhairle knows well and fully accepts the challenges that it continues to face, particularly in the light of the financial situation facing local government. The need to increase the pace of change and develop our policies and strategies for achieving improvement are heavily influenced by the challenges of finance, workforce and leadership capacity. The risks associated with depopulation remains a concern for the Comhairle and we will continue to work with our partners to address these through all our strategic work.”
The Comhairle’s Leader Cllr Paul Steele said; “The Comhairle is committed to transparency and accountability in all we do and welcomes this report as an important contribution to that commitment. The report identifies many of the key strengths of the Comhairle and describes some of the challenges we face. We agree with Audit Scotland on the importance of clear and strategic policy, long term financial planning and the Comhairle calls on the Scottish Government, once again, to implement a multi-year settlement which will allow for greater security for Councils to plan and deliver improvements and change. We have campaigned vigorously against the cuts which all local authorities but particularly the Comhairle, have had to endure in recent years. No-one recognises more than the Comhairle the challenges of depopulation, providing social care and tackling fuel poverty. We note the findings of the Accounts Commission and remain committed to working for our communities in a challenging financial climate exacerbated by COVID and Brexit.”
William Moyes, Chair of the Accounts Commission, said: “The Comhairle must urgently develop a prioritised action plan to address the serious issues it faces. It already has some of the elements it needs to make fundamental changes; it has an ambitious vision for the future and works well with communities and other partners. But without clear strategic direction and leadership from its councillors, supported effectively by officers, as well as crucial effective financial and capital planning, it remains uncertain whether the Comhairle can achieve the improvements it needs to make.”
The detailed audit work for the Report was undertaken before the local elections in May.
The full report is available to view on the Audit Scotland website.
Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Uibhist A Tuath
At last, we have some good news on ferry services to Uist!
After being the community most affected by the debacle of the Ferguson Marine ferry contract scandal it is hard to find the words for the relief and delight at the news that Government has stepped up to the mark and recognised that the original decision – which was made in the central belt with no regard to people in Uist and Harris – to continue a shared vessel operation on our routes across the Little Minch to Uig was plain wrong.
I do not criticise Government for seeking to secure valuable manufacturing jobs in Scotland or restoring pride in commercial shipbuilding on the Clyde. This was a laudable ambition. However, this should not have been the main motivation driving the specification of lifeline ferries to island communities.
Had we been asked, the clear and unequivocal opinion of people in Uist and Harris was that what represented innovation in 1964 when the Triangle service was introduced was long past its use-by-date in 2014. Comhairle nan Eilean and our partners such as HITRANS had presented a report in 2010 making clear the view that what was needed on the Little Minch was a dedicated vessel on each route. We were clear that the MV Hebrides was an excellent servant to our communities, but she needed a sister ship to operate alongside her. What a shame our efforts were ignored.
I wanted to take the opportunity in this column to record my particular thanks to our current Minister for Transport, Jenny Gilruth MSP for listening to what islanders are telling her. The decision announced in Parliament by Ms Gilruth on 19th October that two new ferries built to the design of the two new Islay ferries would be ordered this year for deployment to the Little Minch means that we can be optimistic for the future of our mainland connectivity. Three daily return crossings will offer our seafood industry the opportunity to achieve same day connections for shipment to the south of England and the Continent, maximising the export value of our island produce while at the same time guaranteeing a daily middle of the day departure. Our service sector can look forward to tapping a day trip and short stay market from the many visitors who currently come to Skye but don’t make it to the Western Isles.
Another person I believe deserves much credit for recognising the opportunity offered by freeing the Little Minch of the constraint of a single vessel is Kevin Hobbs, Chief Executive of CMAL. CMAL as an organisation has been the subject of criticism for the Ferguson contract award but this predated Kevin’s appointment. I find Kevin is easy to reach, happy to engage – often forthright in his opinions. He is the first person that I think truly understood the opportunity missed by his colleagues and Transport Scotland when they ploughed ahead with the order for 802 rather than seek views from islanders.
I finished my last piece to Am Pàipear by saying “Things can only get better – surely!” I had no reason to think that would be the case so soon. We will still have major issues as ferry reliability is clearly going to be a problem for the time being but at least there is a happy end in sight.
The Comhairle have recently met with Transport Scotland Aviation Division, Loganair Chief Executive Jonathan Hinkles and HIAL at separate meetings to discuss the future of air services to the Western Isles. High on the agenda was the impending sale of Loganair and the PSO contract between Benbecula and Stornoway, which is due to for renewal in April 2023. The Comhairle currently subsidise the five-rotation service by a sum of £600k. This has to be set in the context of increasing costs and a Comhairle Core Budget that has seen a reduction of Scottish Government funding over the last several years. Transport Scotland subsidise a few PSOs including the Barra service but maintain that they cannot support an internal service within a Local Authority Area. They also face having to look closely at their own budget to identify savings.
The discussion with Loganair in relation to the Benbecula/Stornoway service was positive and we outlined the pressure on Comhairle budgets and the need to look at ways that this service could be maintained. The service is particularly essential for the people who have to travel to the Western Isles Hospital for appointments. Currently NHS Eilean Siar refuse to contribute to the costs of running the service, which is disappointing.
In relation to the impending sale of Loganair, which has caused a lot of concern locally, the following points were made by their Chief Executive Jonathan Hinkles:
• Loganair has been serving the Western Isles since 1964 and over that time, the airline has undergone five changes of ownership – Logan Construction Company, the Royal Bank of Scotland, British Midland, Scott Grier and latterly the Bonds. Throughout all of that, services to the islands have continued, ranging from delivering daily newspapers (its first venture to Stornoway in 1964) to being sole operator of the air service at Barra continually since taking over the route from British Airways on 1 September 1974.
• Loganair’s recently-announced return to profit after the pandemic is very helpful ahead of any change of ownership – using the straightforward maxim that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. If the airline was heavily loss-making, it’s inevitable that any new owner would be seeking to make major changes to stem those losses – which could well have ramifications for island lifeline flights. That isn’t the case as is apparent from Loganair’s performance through the pandemic.
• Equally, the airline needs to make a profit to survive and re-invest. Setting aside the Barra
and the Stornoway-Benbecula routes which are operated as PSO subsidised air services, all of its other Western Isle’s routes – Glasgow to Benbecula and Stornoway, Inverness and Edinburgh to Stornoway – receive no direct public subsidy. Loganair operates these at its own risk, so if it carries no passengers, it receives no income. Of course, the Air Discount Scheme is in place to subsidise fares for non-business trips for island residents, but this is no guarantee of income for Loganair.
• And where fuel prices have shot up, the Scottish Government pays the additional bill for Calmac’s ferries, but Loganair has to recover this through its own means. It also has to invest in its fleet – again, unlike Calmac, there’s no cheque from the Scottish Government to cover new equipment (which many might see as a good thing) and Loganair’s profits are being reinvested into its fleet renewal. The Saab 340 aircraft – the oldest of which G-LGNI is 33 years old, so right up there alongside a Calmac ferry – are being replaced over the next 12 months with next-generation ATR turboprops. The Spiorad de Beinn na Faghla (which is now 32) will be making its last flight for Loganair before year-end.
This replacement programme for equipment used on lifeline air services is being achieved without public subsidy, with minimal fuss (certainly compared to a similar programme on ferries!) and will future-proof the island air services for at least a decade and probably more. Dedicated freighter variants of the new ATR aircraft are already in service delivering the Western Isles’ mail on six days a week into Stornoway and Benbecula, from where the mail is then taken on the inter-isles ferry to Barra too.
• The airline has assured that its fleet renewal programme will continue apace and will not be affected by any impending change of ownership. Its policy of employing staff within the Highlands and Islands – where it supports over 180 full-time jobs – is also set to continue.
• Current shareholders have supported the airline through thick and thin, including the pandemic when they made additional investment into Loganair and strengthened its balance sheet.
Youth Parliament update
Samantha Jordon MYSP was elected to the Scottish Youth Parliament last year and took up her new role in March 22. Until this summer, she was a Lance Corporal in the Army Cadet Force, but will be leaving this month to take up a Retail and Catering Apprenticeship with CalMac.
Samantha turns 18 in September and lives in Benbecula.
How life as an MYSP been?
My first six months in office have been amazing! Between getting to meet my fellow MSYPs and the staff, being given amazing opportunities and starting to work on various projects, I’ve loved every bit of it.
I’ve been really inspired to make changes and now that I’ve been in SYP for a good amount of time, I’ve really gotten the feel for how to do that. It makes me so happy to know that I have the support system that will help me make the changes that will help young people.
What has been the highlight?
There’s been so many! If had to pick one thing, it would be the summer sitting which happened at the start of July in Cumbernauld. I finally got to meet so many of my friends that I’ve made since being elected. I got to be part of a debate around members motions and to learn more about our board members. I got to have a session with MSYPs from our Region, Highlands and Islands. And I just had the best time. I was so sad to leave.
How does it all work?
So the way that the Youth Parliamentary System works is that there are MSYPs from every local authority, though some may not have an MSYP if no young person stood for the position. We have a board that is made up of a Chair, a Vice Chair and six trustees. We have ten subject committees, and each committee has a Convener and Deputy Convener.
Are you on any committees? And interest groups?
I am a member of the Equalities and Human Right committee, which means so much to me because I have always been a fighter for equality, since I can remember. I am also a member of Creative Communications Team (CCT) and the Youth Ethics Advisory Panel (YEAP). But I am constantly applying for every opportunity that I can – I want to get as involved in as many things as possible!!
What issues will you be working on?
I’m currently in the process of putting forward a members motion for SYP78 on getting air fare that is actually affordable for young people between the Scottish Isles and the Mainland. This is such a big problem for young people at the moment, especially for Islanders.
It is ridiculous how expensive it is to fly to the mainland! Living on an island, it can be so isolating for people, especially young people who end up missing out on so much due to our location. This is a topic I am extremely passionate about.
What have you learned?
I have learned so much since becoming an MSYP. I’ve learned just how many things still need changed for young people. I’ve learned how important it is to make sure your social media posts are accessible, by using alt text or closed captions – it means that everyone can properly see your content, which is so important. And I look forward to learning so much more that can help me, not only in my role but also in everyday life.
What has surprised you the most about yourself?
I think I’m the most surprised about how outgoing I’ve become. Since joining SYP I’ve noticed I can now go and speak to people without getting too anxious, which I think is such an amazing skill to have earned. I started my journey with really bad social anxiety, but as I’m answering this I’ve come to realise that thanks to SYP my social anxiety isn’t as bad. It still affects me but it’s gotten so much better.
How have you kept in touch with your constituents?
I like to post on my social medias (Sam4syp) to make sure that young people can see what I’m up to and so that they can give me suggestions and ask me any questions. I also consult my constituents by using google forms, which I post the links to on my social medias.
What would you say to other young people reading this?
Even if you think it’s not cool, or not your problem, please work with us. If we post a consultation, fill it out, it takes less than 5 minutes. We do our role to make a difference for you, so help us, because I don’t think you realise how much your opinion matters.