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.”

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