Barra no more              23/3/13




Question: When is an Obligation to provide a Public Service, no longer an “obligation”?

Answer: When it’s a “Life-Line” inter-island air service from Isle of Barra to Isle of Benbecula.

Definition of “obligation”: (n.) a moral or legal bond, tie or binding power: that to which one is bound: a debt of gratitude: a favour; (law) a bond containing a penalty in case of failure.


It appears we’re now staring in apoplexic dismay at the latter definition and having to accept an outcome of “a case of failure”, without it would seem the “penalty.”

Try telling this to the Barra and Uist public, and some distant American cousins disguised as tourists, and maybe Lorraine Kelly, if she ventures to return. Future travel arrangements must be rather upsetting too for all health board professionals and patients, contemplating all options, one being flying from Stornoway to Glasgow to Barra (return); also, more inevitable use of Air Ambulance Service. Do these outcomes fall into the category of “Best Value,” First Minister, Finance Secretary, CEO’s and councillors?

Blame Game - The Comhairle have voted, in fairness, after an extensive period of consultation: our MP and MSP blame the Comhairle; our SNP Government blames Westminster; the SNP group of councillors, who didn’t participate in the democratic process of consultation, blame the Comhairle; the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament have deliberated and received a Petition, number PE1472, signed by over 1500 people and will continue to consult, take evidence, and deliberate for months, if not years, to come. Not much hope then here for a life-line eleventh-hour rescue.

One MSP Petitions Committee member commented, most controversially:

Jackson Carlaw: I will be contrary, convener… we are being asked to intervene on a matter that has been visited on the community by the council that it chose to elect. Its first remedy is to elect a different council. I am not quite sure what the obligation is that we are asking ministers to take a view on, given that there is a remedy open to the community to deal with the issue.” (15th March)

Presumably this remedy will be available to be actioned by the electorate in May 2017!  Thanks for this advice, Tory MSP Jackson Carlaw.

The PSO contract with the provider Loganair has been terminated and the service which has operated since 1975 will come to an abrupt halt, only five flights now remaining until the fateful day.

On 19 August 1975 the council minutes referred to the proposed interisland air service, and a couple of months later they mentioned the inaugural flight of the Loganair service. (Councillor Rae MacKenzie)

An uninspired briefing paper prepared for the Petitions Committee reads as follows:

“Direct State Aid aimed at covering operating losses is, in general, not compatible with the principles of the single European market. However, state subsidy of air routes designated as public service obligations (PSO) is permitted.

“… The rationale for imposing a PSO should be based on the fact that the maintenance of regular air services is considered vital for the economic development of the region where the airport is located.”

Yes! Indeed! Vital!

Scottish Government Action:

“The Scottish Government has indicated that air PSOs specified, let and managed by local authorities are a matter for those authorities” (ie the Comhairle - In other words, no action).

Scottish Parliament Action:

“The Scottish Parliament has not considered the issue of air public service obligations currently specified, let and managed by local authorities.“ (In other words - no action).

Question in Scottish Parliament:

Question S4O-01851 - David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab) Date Lodged 20/02/2013: To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to review the number and range of public service obligations for fragile air services in the Highlands and Islands.

The Minister for Transport and Veterans (Keith Brown): The Scottish Government currently supports three PSO air services from Glasgow to Campbeltown, Tiree and Barra. We have agreed to pilot from this summer a weekend service (from Glasgow) to Campbeltown, which will be included in the new contract for the service. We generally monitor these services in the normal course of events, but we have no further plans at this time to review the number and range of air services subject to a PSO in the Highlands and Islands (ie Barra – Benbecula).

Thank you SNP MSP Minister Keith Brown. Your reputation in these islands is reaching new lows, after your fiscal penalties imposed on Commercial Vehicles using our ferries (RET). What inflation-bursting percentage increase is being imposed from this April, on top of last years’ increases?

Sorry to say, with due respect to our SNP MP, MSP and Government, this sorry state of affairs does not augur well for a YES vote in the much-heralded Independence Referendum in 500+ days’ time, if they cannot address and sort out this rather small scale local difficulty (a la recent Isle of Raasay debacle).

The cost of the air subsidy on the Barra to Benbecula route is reported as being £148,000 (five days per week service). Pro rata, presumably about £90,000 for a three days per week service, although bums on seats may be more on a less frequent service, and therefore less subsidy required. The Barra plane service is presently co-ordinated with the connection to the Benbecula to Stornoway service, which is reducing from next month to a three-day weekly service. I have said elsewhere, and in correspondence with the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretaries, that the Barra/Benbecula service should also be maintained on a similar basis, for many obvious reasons. This is the least we can do to maintain a vital air link with Barra and to honour faithfully a long-standing, unimpeachable “obligation” to our friends and neighbours.

It will not have escaped the notice of many island citizens that the cost of present litigation in the Court of Session between the Comhairle and the SNP government on the vexed issue of closure of rural schools is running at a figure in excess of £100,000 and the QC’s meter still ticking. What a waste of scarce public money, for whichever public agency has to pay the final legal bill.

The Proclaimers should be asked to write another verse to their acclaimed “Letter from America,” sung now almost as a national anthem at Scotland’s football and rugby internationals. In addition, the Vatersay Boys and Runrig should be composing their own versions, preferably in Gaelic, with due respect observed towards the sensibilities of our political masters. This may contain the words, suitably translated: “A plague on all your houses.” Other comments on postcards please.

Andrew Walker

3 Kyles Flodda

Isle of Benbecula


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