Far north air connectivity 'absolutely critical', Alistair Carmichael says on Wick visit
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Air connectivity in the far north is “absolutely critical”, the Scottish Liberal Democrats' deputy leader Alistair Carmichael declared during a visit to Caithness. And he warned: “It’s not just about keeping services here – it's about keeping services reliable.”
Mr Carmichael, the MP for Orkney and Shetland, was speaking in Wick on Saturday alongside Jamie Stone, the Lib Dem MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, and the party's Holyrood candidate Molly Nolan.
Caithness was left without scheduled flights after the loss of the Edinburgh and Aberdeen routes last year, but hopes of a viable future for local air links were raised with the announcement in February of up to £4 million in Scottish Government funding.
The money will be made available to Highland Council over the next four financial years to bring back services to and from Wick John O'Groats Airport. The Scottish Government said the investment would help the local authority to take forward plans for public service obligation (PSO) routes.
Meanwhile, Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) has been facing criticism over its Air Traffic Management Strategy amid concerns it will harm economically vulnerable areas and downgrade smaller airports.
Mr Carmichael said: “Connectivity between communities here in the far north of mainland Scotland, Orkney, Shetland and throughout the Highlands and Islands is absolutely critical.
“The SNP has a strong centralising interest – it has taken control of the police, ambulance and fire services away from communities like this and it’s all to be controlled from the central belt.
“They now want to do the same thing with air traffic control – they think it can all be done from a building outside Inverness. They ignore the fact that in the north of Scotland you see some of the most extreme weather that you will find anywhere in the northern hemisphere.
“For those days when the winds blow you’re not going to have a reliable, safe service. That means it's not just bad news for people like myself, who use that as commercial passengers, but for communities that rely on the air ambulance service being able to come and go.
“That’s the sort of service that’s going to be affected by the centralisation. It might only be a handful of days in the year, but for these handful of days lives could depend on it.”
Mr Carmichael added: “At the end of the day, the yardstick that you have to apply is what will make it more likely that people will want to stay living in communities here, and it is being able to connect to the rest of the world – whether it is through air services or train services, or broadband connectivity. These are the things the government should be concentrating on.
“If we are to rebuild our economy at the end of the pandemic, putting the recovery first, that should be our priority – not another independence referendum.”
Mr Stone said a “fully functioning” airport will be crucial with the plans for Space Hub Sutherland and the need to attract new businesses as the Dounreay site is decommissioned.
“If the airport in any way is downgraded then companies won’t be so inclined the come here,” he said. “We’ve got to make the transport links absolutely top-notch – that will get people coming here, starting to open up businesses and providing jobs.”
Ms Nolan said: “The fact is, at the moment, this PSO is in name only and is only window dressing. There’s a lot of hard work that needs to be done with HIAL, with Highland Council, with the Scottish Government, with Wick John O'Groats Airport and with commercial services to connect all of that up and get things going again.”
She added: “With the PSO specifically, it has been left to Highland Council to sort this out, and that does feel like a very difficult position to put the council in after years and years of cuts. I think the Scottish Government needs to view Highland Council as an autonomous level of local government rather than just an implementation tool for the various grants and policy decisions that it wants to carry out.”
HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon has said of the air traffic changes: “We would not be undertaking this hugely complex project unless we believed it was absolutely necessary to do so.”