Friday, 1 March 2013

Thoughts on the Barra-Benbecula air service debacle

On Thursday, 14th February 2013, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar set its budget for the next two years. Councillors representing every ward from the each part of the Hebrides considered the options in front of them – two balanced budgets.

One budget, fronted by Councillor Rae Mackenzie from the SNP Group, committed to retaining the lifeline air services from Stornoway – Benbecula- Barra. The other budget, proposed by Councillor Angus Campbell (Stornoway South) and seconded by Councillor Roddie Mackay (Stornoway North) opted to cut the lifeline service so that there would be no inter-island air connection to Barra and reduce the Stornoway to Benbecula service to three days.

The budget saving the inter-island flights received six votes from the SNP Group and Councillor DJ Macrae (Labour). All other councillors voted to slash the service.

Most Hebrideans struggle to find the reasons as to why the majority of councillors would cut a service that ensured Southern Isles patients can receive healthcare in the Western Isles hospital in Stornoway, enabled people from the Southern Isles the precious opportunity to visit sick relatives, helped medical consultants to navigate round the islands.

Why on earth would any councillor vote to make it more difficult to travel from island to island. The impact on Outer Hebrides tourism and the now-near-impossible tourist flow from north to south could have a dramatic impact on the future of the economy.

The anger and disbelief regarding this cut has manifested itself into the form of a petition which has been signed from all over the Hebrides. Petitions in Stornoway are quickly filling up as folk from Lewis and Harris show solidarity with their fellow islanders in the South. Lorraine Kelly, famous TV Personality, has brought the issue great media attention in her condemnation of the cut.

The arguments made in favour of isolating the Southern Isles and cutting the service were tenuous.

There was the belief that the NHS should foot the bill as it is one of the main users. However, as reiterated by the NHS, they would then be taking money away from healthcare, their core business, to subsidise air travel, which is the local authority's responsibility.

This has been the stance of the Western Isles Health Board since the issue was first raised and there has been no change in their position nor is there likely to be. The fact that there was no prospect of the WIHB change of position begs the question : why the air services were an option when WIHB funding was not?

The decision to go for Councillor Campbell’s budget now puts pressure on the WIHB to maintain the current local position of healthcare services across the islands without the lifeline service.

Another argument put forward to combat the backlash of angry islanders was that the service was underused, a “low use operation compared to other priorities”. Angus Brendan Macneill MP makes the obvious point to address this argument in terms of our locality and any further representations we do make to the government on the lines of our peripheral locality.

Angus wrote: "there was reluctance by the then council to build a road to Rhenigadale in Harris as not many people lived there. Eventually, it was pointed out that the whole island case for extra funding at many levels is based on rurality, remoteness and disadvantage. Thankfully, sense eventually prevailed and Rhenigadale got its road.

"This time we have a spectre of thinking akin to a motorist who throws away his starter motor from the car engine on the basis that he only uses it for 5 seconds every trip and it is not cost effective. Eventually, its dawns on the motorist of the interdependence of all the car components on the others. Let’s hope councillors quickly see the damage they are doing to our communities.”

When Councillor Donald Crichton (Loch a’Tuath) quite admirably seeks greater funding for services for the Hebrides “given our peripherality”, the SNP Group wonder if his words would sound less hollow if he and his colleagues had supported Councillor Rae Mackenzie’s alternative budget and voted to save the Barra-Benbecula air service.