Shetland Times Column 23rd July

The Prospect Union strike next Thursday regarding the centralisation of air traffic services in Inverness should come as no surprise to HIAL (Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd) or the Scottish Government. They have been told time and again that the project is flawed and will result in job losses across the Highlands and Islands.

Modernising air traffic services is not disputed but the removal of jobs and income from local economies is. Even HIAL’s own consultants have pointed out that there are alternative solutions.

HIAL’s Island Communities Impact Assessment reflects what staff and communities have been saying, jobs should stay at home and not be centralised in Inverness.

Inevitably it will be the travelling public, including people attending hospital appointments, that will be affected by the strike day. Having been badly hit by the pandemic and starting to build up services again this is the last thing air services need, but it would be foolish to under-estimate the sympathy in the community for the stance Prospect has taken.

Ministers must stop this project and think again.

Parliamentary recess provides an opportunity for MSPs to get out of the office and into their communities to hear their issues and priorities. Having completed a round of visits to the isles and surgeries across the Shetland, no-one will be surprised that transport, digital connectivity, health services and housing are the priorities here.

Early Monday morning I was on my way to Cooke Aquaculture in Unst to see their seawater operation. The last time I saw a salmon farm up close was more years ago than I care to remember and it was good to learn about today’s modern farming operation. It was a great experience with people who are passionate about what they do to produce healthy and nutritious food, and keen to share their knowledge.

During discussions with Dennis Johnson, David Brown and Christine Nicholson the value to the local supply chain of aquaculture was visually demonstrated – net cleaning, diving, haulage, locally-built boats and locally-produced salmon boxes to name but a few. There are hundreds of people directly employed with the companies who have invested in Shetland, but there are also many others in companies servicing that valued sector.

Then it was on to the packing station at Mid Yell where staff were processing and packing thousands of salmon. That operation has changed dramatically since the summer I spent in the same factory as a 17-year old packing fish that would eventually be turned into fish fingers. There’s no comparison between what was produced then and now.

The ferries I’ve taken in the past couple of weeks have been very busy with little spare capacity. People aren’t always able to get the bookings they need or want, so the challenge now is to ensure that ferry connections don’t stifle growth, the expansion of businesses and deter people from living and working in the isles.

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