24 February 2010

S3M-5426 Highlands and Islands Airports (Car Parking Charges)

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 24 February 2010

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:30]

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Highlands and Islands Airports (Car Parking Charges)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Alasdair Morgan): The next item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-5426, in the name of Liam McArthur, on car parking charges at Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd airports. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.


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The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

Like members around the chamber, I thank Liam McArthur for securing a debate on this important issue. I assure Mr McArthur and other members that I appreciate that strong arguments will be, and have been, made against the introduction of car parking charges at Kirkwall airport and elsewhere. Indeed, I am conscious of the lively debate that took place when car parking charges were extended in Kirkwall town centre to include another four car parks to improve parking turnover, with a highest charge of £2.40 a day.

Liam McArthur: I think that I am right in saying that the proposal was for four car parks, but the decision was ultimately taken to extend charges to two. I say that to clarify the situation for the record—I would not want him to mislead the Parliament.

Stewart Stevenson: The record is now clear and I am sure that the member would not seek to mislead me or anyone else on the matter—two car parks it is.

I simply make the point that the circumstances in which different bodies find themselves mean that they have to look very carefully at the options that are in front of them.

I make the general point that HIAL has 11 airports. I have flown personally into all of them: four as a pilot, a number as a passenger personally and some as a minister. I know that there is huge diversity in the airports across the network and that we have to have appropriate responses to the needs of each one.

I heard the discussions about air fares. It is correct that in our island communities there is not much, if any, competition for the provision of services, so one's choice is much more limited. As a minister, when I was going to Poznań for the 14th conference of the parties—COP 14—about 15 months ago, according to the initial quote from the Government's travel advisers the fare would be £1,200. I did not think that that was the right amount of money, so I spent 20 minutes on the internet and got it down to about £200. It meant arriving in Poznań at 3.15 in the morning, but I thought that it was a sensible thing for the minister to do, although he should not have had to do it.

I acknowledge the value of the discount scheme that the previous Administration introduced and I have been pleased to continue to give support to that very important scheme. I am not terribly sure that the references to FOIs accorded with my understanding of what went on. We have had some useful clarification from Kevin Dunion, the Information Commissioner, about whether documents or information may be sought and we have adjusted our policies accordingly.

It is important that we have a consistent policy on car parking, but having a consistent policy does not ineluctably lead to having identical outcomes. It is clear that the distance of Sumburgh airport from any major centres of population in Shetland creates a particular dynamic that will need to be considered.

I acknowledge Alasdair Allan's legitimate point that there are not many tourists in the car parks of our major island airports. They are essentially used by local people and there is significant difficulty in travelling to airports.

Peter Peacock, like Liam McArthur, referred to NHS patients. I quote from a letter from Inglis Lyon to, among others, the chair of the Kirkwall airport consultative committee. At question 2, it states:

"No charge for hospital patients".

I accept that that is for consultation and that it is a suggestion, but I would be somewhat surprised, whatever outcome we achieve, if we were to wish to charge hospital patients or, for that matter, blue badge holders. Indeed, the suggestion in the letter from Inglis Lyon is that the charge for parking for 24 hours will be £3—broadly the same as the charge for parking in the centre of Kirkwall.

We are in challenging financial times and the board of HIAL is responsible for running the company. The Government minister—me—acts on behalf of the public as the owner of the shares, but, under the Companies Act, it is clear that we appoint the board members to make decisions. I am sure that HIAL will be watching the debate and will be very much aware of the interest that is being taken in the issue. I am very pleased that consultations are now going on. Given reduced demand and hence reduced income, it is important that the board considers every opportunity to balance the books and to ensure that it discharges its responsibilities.

Mary Scanlon: About a minute ago, the minister mentioned a consistent approach. Does he agree that a central factor in that is whether alternative public transport systems are available, such as those in Inverness that I outlined, and that a critical factor is the airport's sustainability, given a potential reduction in demand?

Stewart Stevenson: I acknowledge that absolutely. The investment in new parking facilities at Kirkwall as part of the terminal's redevelopment was excellent. I note that, at peak times, the car park is full—in fact, it is overfull, to the extent that people park on the grass verges and elsewhere. That is not disconnected from the point that almost everyone who parks at the airport contributes to the revenue that is generated from the airport.

HIAL must take into account precisely those balancing issues.

I referred to Sumburgh's location, which presents special challenges because of its distance. I know how much a taxi journey to Sumburgh costs, because I have had to do it on ministerial duties.

Liam McArthur rose—

Stewart Stevenson: If the Presiding Officer is content for me to do so, I will keep taking interventions.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: I do not know about keeping on taking interventions, but the minister can take this one.

Liam McArthur: I thank the minister and the Presiding Officer for allowing me to intervene.

The minister referred to the distance between Sumburgh and Lerwick, which is the main population centre. He will appreciate that Orkney has been described as the fried egg, which presents other challenges, not least the existence of other population centres in Stromness, out on the west mainland and in the wider isles, which use the airport but do not have access to the bus service. Constant reference to the distance of Kirkwall rather than Lerwick to the airport is slightly disingenuous, as is the reference to car parking charges in Kirkwall town centre, which are irrelevant to many of my constituents.

Stewart Stevenson: I refer to Sumburgh merely because of the clear and specific difference, but the circumstances at each airport—Stornoway, Kirkwall and Sumburgh—need to be considered. I do not wish to pre-empt the outcomes.

HIAL's remit includes consideration of the social aspect. I do not encourage the board to take a decision that would make it difficult for people to travel to the airport to use air services and I am sure that the board will take tent of my saying that and of what others say.

We give HIAL substantial financial support of some £27 million. The air discount scheme, which benefits many people in Orkney and the Highlands and Islands—take-up levels are high, although they are probably lower in Caithness and Sutherland, where I would like them to rise—involves a further £6 million. Substantial support is provided.

HIAL's board has reflected on the need to consult more fully. I welcome that. Lessons can be learned from the initial consultation. Such decisions are not abstract—they touch on the lives of people in our islands, so it is proper that they should involve consultative committees.

Of course, the board has a wider fiduciary duty to support economic and social aims for the Highlands and Islands. It would have to ameliorate any potential impact of introducing charges and to ensure that it can explain the policies that it implements.

I assure Mary Scanlon that the planning processes for Dalcross station are proceeding apace.

The debate has been useful. I wait with interest to see what HIAL takes out of the consultations that it is undertaking. I hope that it will listen carefully to the input from the debate and from elsewhere. Ultimately, it is for HIAL to take decisions, but I am sure that it will take notice of what is said elsewhere.

Meeting closed at 17:34

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