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Hial centralisation plan 'all smoke and mirrors', says north MSP

By Gordon Calder

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A controversial plan to centralise Highlands and Islands air traffic control services in Inverness is “all smoke and mirrors,” according to north MSP Rhoda Grant.

The project, it has been claimed, would also result in the downgrading of Wick John O’Groats Airport.

Mrs Grant (pictured), a Labour MSP, hit out after company representatives appeared for the third time at the Scottish Parliament’s petitions committee on Wednesday. She wants the proposal to be halted until an independent assessment can be undertaken by Audit Scotland.

Mrs Grant says Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (Hial) has come under increasing criticism for “a lack of transparency and lack of consideration of the risks and costs of the project” and says the company’s representations are “clearly not working in the interests of communities”.

“Hial is all smoke and mirrors and is relying on a lot of technical speak to cover the fact this project is not well thought through, not cost-effective and is being pushed forward as a matter of stubbornness. As soon as you start to pull at the thread of Hial’s argument it all comes apart.”

Mrs Grant added: “It has also become increasingly clear that Hial is not willing to properly engage on this matter with its staff, with the communities it is there to serve and nor, its abysmal performance in front of the petitions committee would suggest, with the Scottish Government or those trying to exercise accountability.

“So I have written to Audit Scotland laying out the risk and cost concerns of the project and asking them to step in and compel some actual detail and honesty about the project.

"It is simply not acceptable that a Government agency, one which is there to serve and support our most rural and fragile communities, is being so bull-headed and determined to strip those communities of its lifeline assets at a greater cost than it would take to invest in them, and make no mistake, that’s exactly what this will do. As well as removing urgently needed jobs, and families who are invested in these communities, the plans will leave a less resilient lifeline service."

However, Hial rejected the criticism and said the committee was given "a full, open and accurate explanation of why the plan is being undertaken."

A company spokesman said it was explained there are "no alternative proposals for air traffic services that provide the all-encompassing solution of Hial’s current strategy."

"For Ms Grant to translate a matter of public record into an allegation of ‘smoke and mirrors’ is poor, at best.

"We explained to petition committee members, including Ms Grant, that air traffic management is a very complex and technically challenging environment that requires precision and accuracy and that was reflected in our responses. Nonetheless, we once again continue to extend our invite to Rhoda Grant to meet with us and we will be more than happy to explain in further detail any aspect of the project."

Meanwhile, retired Caithness businessman, Andy Bruce, has also expressed concern about Hial's plans.

Mr Bruce, who founded and ran Far North Aviation at Wick airport for many years, described the scheme as "madness" and said the cost of the project will be "massively over" the estimated £24 million.

"All the estimates and consultancy has been flawed from the start. Hial will go on wasting money until the centralisation and downgrading plan is completed although I hope I am wrong about that," added Mr Bruce who feels the Scottish Government will not oppose the plans as it owns the company.

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