Hotelier Warns Commons Transport Committee That Scilly Is On ‘Economic Precipice’


Islanders give evidence at the Commons Transport Committee Meeting

Islanders give evidence at the Commons Transport Committee Meeting

The Transport Minister has been told how Scilly is on an “economic precipice.”

Baroness Kramer and Transport Select Committee MPs have been given examples of how the end of the helicopter service and the Steamship Company’s problems are adversely affecting tourism, businesses and also islanders requiring mainland medical treatment.

And whilst the Minister did not reject any subsidy for a new helicopter or transport service to Scilly, she warned that the issue is one of  “complexity.”

Baroness Kramer suggested that interested parties need to agree on what they want and present a cohesive plan to government.

Yesterday, members from the Friends of Isles of Scilly Transport campaign group Marian Bennett and Tim Guthrie, hotelier Robert Francis and Council Transport Committee Chair Chris Thomas and Chief Executive Theo Leijser addressed the Commons Transport Select Committee’s enquiry into Passenger Transport in Isolated Communities, in London.

Louise Ellman, Chairperson of the committee had invited islanders to attend following a letter sent by the late Vice-Chairman of Council, Dudley Mumford.

And Marian Bennett described the complicated journey she had undertaken to ensure that she could attend the meeting.

In giving an overview to the issues, Theo Leijser shared his view that the islands’ community is resilient and locals had proactively resolved transport issues previously.

The Steamship Company had been formed to offer a local solution and 40% of their shares are held by islanders, with the company remaining commercially viable, he said.

There had been three complementary “modes” of transport to Scilly but one had been lost with the end of the British International Helicopter service.

Theo argued that there needs to be a dependable and resilient transport solution for visitors and islanders. The Council wanted support for the right infrastructure so that any new operator could come in.

Tim Guthrie explained that the helicopters were an attraction in their own right. Their loss had created a downturn in our core business of tourism.

People enjoyed traveling on the only scheduled rotary passenger service in the UK, but Tim also explained that the Sikorskys could travel in 70 knot winds.

The MPs on the committee were keen to hear what representation both Scilly and Cornwall Councils had made when the service looked likely to end in 2012.

Marian and others explained that there had been many meetings with the company, but the ceasing of their operations had been their commercial decision.

She felt the cost of operating and maintaining the older 1960s aircraft was a contributory factor but indicated that newer helicopters might prove more viable.

Although the former heliport has been lost, a new potential Penzance heliport site had been identified, opposite the old site.

Richard Blackler of Cornwall Council, who also attended, told the meeting that when the BIH pull-out was imminent, the Department For Transport had expected that the remaining operator would adapt their two modes of transport to meet demand

Hotelier Robert Francis followed a similar angle. He told the committee it had been hoped that the Steamship Company could pick up from where the rotary service left off but that, he said, has not happened.

Robert warned that there isn’t the reliability with the current operation and Scilly is facing “an economic precipice.”

Marian gave stark figures to back up Robert’s view. She highlighted the 27% decline in visitor numbers over the last two years, and told MPs that the cost of travel was a real issue.

It had been highlighted, for instance, in the Council transport preference survey and Marian stated that the level of fares is “remarkably high” and precludes visitors.

Mr Francis informed the committee that transport uncertainty is harming tourism. Visitors won’t come if they don’t know when they can get there and get away, he said.

In response to MPs questions about how Scilly’s freight was being affected, they were given an overview on how we receiv items from gas bottles to Amazon parcels.

Theo Leijser shared his opinion that the Royal Mail service, which was carried by Skybus, was “very reliable.”

Theo told the Minister that larger freight was operated commercially and there was an open market arrangement with more than one operator using the quay.

But he added that freight issues are “not clear cut” as there are restrictions on mixing passengers and goods in the same operation, because dangerous or restricted goods sometimes need to be conveyed.

Marian advised the committee that freight costs do impact on islanders’ lives and businesses.

Food prices are 20% higher than Penzance, fuel is 25% more and building materials are double the mainland cost, she said.

Theo explained that the added building costs are adversely impacting the islands’ ability to build affordable social housing.

Politicians on the committee were also keen to find out whether transport issues were affecting medical travel.

Marian outlined the extent of the Land’s End Airport closure. The Airport has been out of action since the Christmas break due to waterlogging of the grass runway.

Medical passengers were being diverted to Newquay.

Tim Guthrie explained that locals traveling to Truro’s Treliske Hospital are facing a £40 taxi ride from Newquay and similar fares for the return trip because of poor mainland public transport connections.

He described the plight of a local, who had received the reduced £5 medical fare, but then faced two days of Land’s End airport closures before returning to Scilly.

The patient had to fund mainland accommodation and, with taxi fares, that meant a simple trip to a specialist cost around £500.

Tim told the committee that was not an uncommon situation and Robert Francis shared details of a local who, following a recent accident, would be unable to return until April because of difficulty in traveling on a fixed-wing flight.

There appeared to be “no joined up thinking,” he said.

Richard Blackler of Cornwall Council was brought into the debate for his views on Cornwall’s transport facilities.

He felt that the Steamship Company’s shuttle bus from Newquay to Truro was a “positive move” and that could reduce the taxi fare burden to medical patients to around £5.

But Marian Bennett leapt on this statement and challenged Richard’s comment. She said the shuttle was provided “by request” and when she took it recently, her taxi fare was still £18 and she had been required to wait for 45 minutes in freezing conditions.

Mr Blackler explained that 189,000 passengers travel through Cornwall Council-owned Newquay Airport each year, but there can be as few as 19 people a day traveling from Scilly and those passengers often have a variety of onward destinations.

Cornwall Council can’t put into place the public transport links islanders are looking for, he said.

After hearing locals’ experience and anecdotes, Louise Ellman, Chairperson of the Transport Select Committee, voiced her opinion that there appeared to have been, “a market failure on adequate transport links.”

She said that islanders felt that they had been treated differently to residents of other islands.

Baroness Kramer recognised a “resilience issue” but advised the committee that there were only four days on average when the helicopter could fly and the fixed wing could not. But she didn’t rule out looking at the issue in further detail, adding, “we are very engaged”

Baroness Kramer advised that there would be competition issues if there was a request for subsidy because a commercial operator currently runs an air and sea route to Scilly. And she pointed out that the goal of any new subsidised service would be to take passengers away from the current operator.

During MPs’ questions, the islands’ representatives had been asked whether there was an interest in some form of subsidised franchise for transport services on the route.

Marian Bennett replied saying that they had not looked at that model, but they would, “love it.”

Baroness Kramer then effectively threw the challenge back to the Scilly contingent.

She explained that that “no coherent plan” had come to her department and she advised that interested stakeholders have a lot of internal discussion to do to decide the way forward.

She wanted stakeholders to carry on talks.

After the meeting, Transport Committee Chairman Chris Thomas said that the Council is concentrating on working with its partners to deliver physical improvements to transport infrastructure.

He has personally committed to bringing all parties together to agree “a deliverable request of government.”

13 Responses to Hotelier Warns Commons Transport Committee That Scilly Is On ‘Economic Precipice’

  1. Peter March 6, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    When I read in the report that the Chief Executive had emphasised the resilience of islanders, I thought “What!?”. What an extraordinary shoot-yourself-in-the-foot thing to say! If I were Baroness Kramer, I’d reply “Oh, right, OK. You’re resilient. That means you can cope without our help and things are manageable then. Bye-bye”. Was this a one-off mistake, or signs of a lack of tactical expertise?

  2. al March 6, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    Louise Ellman, Chairperson of the Transport Select, noted there had been a failure of the market. These are the very grounds on which a subsidised franchise can be considered. A tasked Council officer and/or member of Frist (Marian Bennett?) should consult (to a timetable), islanders, visitors, transport professionals, potential operators including the IoSSCo and draw up a package of service requirements (helicopter and/or plane, winter sailings or not, accessibility, frequency, sustainable level of fares etc etc). This can form the basis of a subsidised franchise to present to government/EU which operators can then bid for, including the IoSSCo. The Department of Transport and appropriate EU departments will provide guidance on feasibility, especially if they are approached with enthusiasm and ‘can do’.

  3. John Allsop March 6, 2014 at 3:49 am

    Do,s anyone really think the goverment will consider a subsidized helecopter service. If they did wouldn,t it be expected to give the same to the steamship company. The problem of less people visiting the islands isn,t the lack of a helicopter, there is good transport in place already. It,s the cost of both getting across to the islands plus the accomodation charges which isn,t cheap, how these can be reduced and people still survive the year is a problem. More activities promoted and advertised like the highly successful GIG event have to be carried out. There appear to be attempts like the walking and the cycle tour but do enough people all over the UK know of them, apart from these more are needed. People going for medical reasons to the mainland. I don,t know what grants are available but they should have a grant which not only covers transportation but also at least one nights accomodation. Where i live it is a five hundred mile round trip to our hospital and our medical service provide a reasonable grant for this. Substansial travel grants should be pursued, the lack of a decent travel grant can only lead to worry and stress that a hospital patient shouldn,t have.

  4. Western Patriarch March 5, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    Well said, Patricia Sanderson. With the IoSSC, the Isles have effectively invited the pirates aboard your own ship! To spend a reported £1.25 million on a terminal building for an airport that has no hard-surfaced runway, in my opinion, borders on the criminal. The Isles of Scilly deserves better than the current situation. Ian T’s suggestion for demonstrations in London should have been happening when the helicopter service was under threat, now it’s going to take nearly a week for demonstrators to get to London and back! On cost alone, that’s probably out of the question

  5. PHJ March 5, 2014 at 11:23 am

    Not boring Peter ,as a previous post in another thread would imply (therein lies the problem in a nutshell).
    But, to comment on the above. Another opportunity wasted.To go to a Commons Transport Committee without at least a semblance of a plan!!!! I’m surprised that Susan Kramer and Louise Ellman gave up their time.
    Wake up or get some decent advice.

    • Ian T. March 6, 2014 at 12:06 pm

      Yes, it would have been great to have a plan. In reality a dozen or more solutions could be envisaged to solve the transport problem but they would vary in cost from the reasonable to absolutely ridiculous. Unless you know how much money you have to spend it’s difficult to come up with a single solution. If the Commons Transport Committee now, at last, grasp, appreciate and importantly understand, the reasons for the problem and the desperate need for a solution, then the meeting will not have been in vain.

  6. Adam Morton March 5, 2014 at 8:39 am

    Spot on Peter!

  7. Peter March 4, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    I would imagine the maxim that government officials use is “bring me solutions, not problems”. Government officials are busy people and they respect people who save them time by saying “here’s the problem, here’s the solution, help us to make it happen”. I’m not a local, and don’t have inside info, but reading between the lines of the various accounts on this site it seems that Scilly Council has a different view to IoSSC on the nature of the problem (whilst I read that 40% of IoSSC is owed by Scillonians – true?). Obviously, the IoSSC has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Result: chaos. I have said here before that the impression I get is that most members of Scilly Council could not organise a beer-drinking ceremony in a beer-making factory, and so what seems to have happened yesterday is that a golden opportunity to ask for funding for a SOLUTION from central government was turned into a wasted woe-is-us, it’s-not-fair, look-at-Scotland session. There seem to be competing interests on Scilly (probably lots of in-fighting) and no-one who will galvanise the islands, pick up the ball and run with it. You need a charismatic saviour, seriously. Decision-making by committee = recipe for inertia. Add in a touch of Cornish “dreckly”, along with the apathy by some about the economic plight of the islands now that tourism – your only source of income – is dying, and the result is a crisis. Yes, this post is perhaps offensive to some, and I may have got the wrong end of the stick on the details, but whatever it takes to provoke somebody into action…

    • maybe we'll do better next time March 5, 2014 at 10:44 am

      I could well believe that 40% of IoSSC is owned by Scillonians…but how many Scillonians? Hardly a community co-operative, not just anyone can buy shares but a few line their pockets at the expense of the others

      Also, and I am sorry to say, I do feel this was a hard won meeting well wasted – Councillor Chris Thomas didn’t seem to know what he was talking about or understand the questions asked of him as he then rambled about something completely different, the new Chief Executive although hitting the nail on the head about resilience and speaking eloquently seemed to be playing down the direty of the situation (to the point even the Baronness had to say – well there is a problem or you wouldn’t be here) and not one person mentioned the food situation. The co-op is frequently out of food and only stocks a basic set of provisions – it would have been a perfect example to highlight our position/resilience issues. Clearly however the point wasn’t hammered home as in the Baronness’ closing statement she seemed to be under the impression we had two providers in competition, rather than one providing two ways – which was part of her reasoning as to why it would be difficult to implement any change as it would be unfair to give competitive advantage to one.

    • Nobby Nobbs March 5, 2014 at 8:18 pm

      No, you’ve got it absolutely spot on!

  8. Jeff Eastick March 4, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Surely , the proposed hardening of the landing strips at Lands End airport will obviate many of the problems highlighted , so why the continued delay in this vital improvement ?
    It cannot all be blamed on the EU.

  9. Patricia Sanderson March 4, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    I am commenting as a former resident of Scilly who has followed this issue closely.

    It is quite clear that no progress will be made until there is the “coherent” plan referred to, and this does not exist at the moment. There are conflicts of interest which seem to get in the way of providing what will be needed to get what the islands should have – a year-round, reliable service to and from Penzance. The present situation is unsustainable, and has the potential to destroy the community because the economy (tourism) is jeopardised and residents will feel increasingly vulnerable.

    I’ve often found it difficult, over the years, to discern the true position of the Council of the Isles of Scilly on issues, but one imagines that their priority – indeed, their raison d’etre – would be maintaining a sustainable community on Scilly. The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company currently has a monopoly of transport links, but is unable to provide a reliable service, particularly in the winter. I presume that, commercially, they would resist a new subsidised service because they would wish to continue to monopolise, but to uphold that position when they are unable to provide the necessary service is not in the best interest of the community in my view.

    This situation has been going on for too long without resolution. I believe that the government can only be lobbied effectively when a “coherent” plan is in place, and this means that the stakeholders have to work together quickly, putting their selfish interests aside and their cards on the table to work out a way to convince the government of the very good case they have.

  10. Ian T. March 4, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    One can only congratulate all the FRIST participants for their efforts. I am still not sure that all the committee really grasped the seriousness of the problem not only with getting across to Scilly but with travel to the West Country generally. There was a glimmer of hope from the member who raised the subject of Scottish subsidies. However, If this meeting has no positive outcome, I find it difficult to envisage any other approach apart than demonstrations outside 10 Downing Street or the Houses of Parliament.