Sunday, February 17, 2013

In the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, two councillors from the Scottish National Party (SNP) began a petition Friday, the day after Comhairle nan Eilean Siar — the local government council for the Western Isles — said it would discontinue flight services between the islands of Benbecula and Barra as part of its 2013 / 2014 budget.

The petition — entitled “To petition the Scottish Parliament that Comhairle nan Eilean Siar maintains its support for the lifeline air services between Stornoway, Benbecula and Barra” — has also been launched in response to another council decision to restrict flight services between the islands of Benbecula and Lewis to three days a week, although the move has been temporarily suspended for two weeks to allow for NHS Western Isles to provide funding for said services. Otherwise, the changes come into effect late next month. Gordon Murray and Rae MacKenzie, the two councillors who launched the petition, are both from the town of Stornoway in the isle of Lewis. At the council’s meeting, Councillor MacKenzie suggested an alternative budget retaining flight service financing. The petition says the council’s decisions “risk the future of all internal flights within the Outer Hebrides and would severely undermine the transport connections which have been built up between the islands over the last forty years, with serious implications for the local economy and community.”

The council’s decision to remove the £148,000 (about US$230,000 or €172,000) subsidy means Benbecula – Barra flights are to cease operation within the next few weeks. When the decision comes into effect, travelling between the islands will only be available through the use of ferry services. The council, which was trying to achieve about £5 million (US$7.75 million or €5.8 million) in spending reductions, said some 75% of seats on these flights were vacant.

Angus MacNeil, MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar in the British Government, and Alasdair Allan, MSP for the same constituency in the Scottish Government, both of whom are SNP members, have criticised the council’s decision. MacNeil said he was “disappointed” about the move and claimed Comhairle nan Eilean Siar was “axing these services while pocketing the cash” provided to them by the Scottish Government. Meanwhile, Allan said the council’s action was “a significant blow to the community”. He said, from Benbecula: “As someone who used the Barra to Benbecula flight today, it is clear to me what importance this service has in keeping the Western Isles connected.”

Council leader Angus Campbell subsequently criticised MacNeil for his remarks, saying he was “extremely disappointed” by them. “The use of the term ‘pocketing the money’ shows a disrespect for the democratic process of local Government”, he said. He also requested that MacNeil and Allan “stand shoulder to shoulder with the Comhairle to campaign for increased funding for the Western Isles to help deal with these issues rather than turning on their democratically elected local council over individual issues they don’t particularly like.”

Campbell described the council’s 2013 / 2014 budget as “the most difficult we have faced during my time as a councillor.”

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