SNP's rotten quango system: How Highlands and Islands air traffic controllers dispute is a parable for our times – Brian Wilson

Over recent months, I have taken an interest in a dispute between Highlands and Islands Airports Limited and the union, Prospect, representing air traffic controllers.

When did Lorna Jack, chair of Highlands and Islands Airports, last visit Benbecula Airport?
When did Lorna Jack, chair of Highlands and Islands Airports, last visit Benbecula Airport?
When did Lorna Jack, chair of Highlands and Islands Airports, last visit Benbecula Airport?

It may be of little direct interest to the great majority but the more I observe it, the more it becomes a parable for the way Scotland is run – a centralised quasi-dictatorship in which respect and accountability are words from a foreign language.

The protracted dispute is about centralisation of air traffic control, and the high-quality island jobs that go with it, in Inverness, removing them from Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles.

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Earlier this year, a leaked Scottish government review confirmed what a shambles the whole thing is – one notch above “undeliverable”. Costs already run into many millions. The Civil Aviation Authority has not yet approved the safety case. There are no exact precedents.

In a rare display of unity, every MP and MSP representing the affected areas – including SNP ones who are not ministers – have come out in opposition. Ditto every local authority.There is literally no political support, other than from SNP ministers.

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When the transport minister, Graeme Dey, finally visited Stornoway, he refused to meet the controllers. With no minister prepared to meet them, far less challenge HIAL, there is literally nowhere for the staff, MSPs or local authorities to go. The bulldozer simply rolls on.

Let’s look at the HIAL board. When these plans were conceived, the chairman was the ultimate placeman of Quango Scotland, Mike Cantlay. He has now moved on to preside over Scottish Natural Heritage, now called NatureScot, and Scottish Funding Council. Once Scotland had world-renowned polymaths; now we have single transferrable quangoteers.

Cantlay’s successor was another quango fixture, Lorna Jack, whose day job is chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland. She has been on the HIAL board since 2014 and is also – surprise, surprise – on the Scottish Funding Council. It was quietly announced last month she has been reappointed as HIAL chair until 2025.

This was a very curious appointment revealed solely through the HIAL website. Ms Jack’s current term does not expire until next February so why reappoint her six months in advance, amidst a bitter industrial dispute, other than to give a sly ministerial vote of confidence to the HIAL management who are the only true believers in this vanity project?

This week, that mighty organ of public opinion, the Stornoway Gazette, asked Ms Jack some direct questions. When did you last visit Stornoway airport? When did you last visit Benbecula airport? Would you be prepared to attend public meetings in affected communities to defend the centralisation plans? How much has all this cost so far?

Ms Jack did not deign to answer, the response coming back in the form of bureaucratic claptrap about “stakeholders” and “engagement programmes” from a PR firm in Glasgow. The idea of being answerable to anyone other than those who appoint our quangoteers is entirely alien. But what is their alternative?

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If Ms Jack had at any point challenged the centralisation strategy – perhaps by listening to the other side or speaking to those on the frontline of this critical public service – the certainty is she would not be looking forward to another five years in this or any other quango role within the gift of SNP ministers. That is how the system works and it is rotten to the core.

The last person to chair HIAL who actually lived on an island, was Sandy Matheson, a distinguished local politician. When he took over, he said: “HIAL can not only deliver safe, affordable services, but encourage social and economic development in the Highlands and Islands, countering remoteness, supporting fragile economies and reversing depopulation. I believe strongly in that, and make it one of my objectives as chair of HIAL…”

Ms Jack and the current breed of Scottish quangoteers would presumably recoil in horror from such language and sentiments. Which is why this is not just a story about a single industrial dispute but a parable on the way Scotland is now run – as the very antithesis of devolved and inclusive democracy.

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