Tuesday, 22 January 2013

BBC feature on Islands Transport Issues

BBC Radio Cornwall did an item on how the islands are coping without the helicopter during the winter and its impact on business both on the islands and on the mainland. Go to BBC Radio iPlayer here and listen to James Churchfield 3 hour programme on Monday 21 January. Move the cursor along to times below to hear what was said.

-   At 1.03 hrs: Comments from local business in Penzance.

-   At 2.06 hrs: Andrew May, Chairman of the IOSSCo

Click here for BBC Internet News item on these interviews.

Read on for some key points from the IOSSCO Chairman's interview and extended FRIST comments.

 The Chairman of the IOSSCo commented on the positive measures being undertaken by the IOSSCo to fill the void left by the closing of the helicopter service. He announced an important milestone would be reached at Lands End with the opening of the new Air Traffic Control tower later in the month. On the matter of services in/out of Lands End he said services would continue from Newquay in the short term. Asked about plans for a hard surface at Lands End Airport he explained it was on the ‘agenda’ and he thanked the IOS Council for accessing public money to work up the project. He explained that plastic matting was being installed on the taxiways and part of runway to see if that provided a short term solution. On the Scillonian refit he said the work completed would enhance the customer experience.


FRIST is supportive of all of the investments in infrastructure and vessels/aircraft whether then be by the private sector or Government. The level of investment by the IOSSCo to help fill the void must be seen as heroic and indicates their commitment to the route.  The issue is the service needed to sustain the island community in the future.  The starting point for considering this should be what is reasonably needed for the community and the economy, not what is the limit to what the private sector can deliver on a purely commercial basis.

The Minister’s position that "Historically, the private sector has provided transport services without ongoing subsidy” is true only to a point. It is true that there have been no ongoing operating subsidies on any of the routes to Scilly but there has been subsidy with the capital cost of helicopters and the Scillonian III. The helicopters were originally purchased when the operator was a publicly owned company.The Scillonian III was purchased with ~60% of the capital cost provided by the Government in the form of an interest free loan (since re-paid).

These capital investments have reached, or will soon reach, the end of their economic lives. The Minister’s decision in March 2011 not to fund the new Route Partnership ferry (to provide an all year round ferry service) means no grant funding for a replacement vessel. There is no evidence to suggest that replacing the Scillonian today is any more feasible, commercially, than it was 1977. This is not ‘news’, it is simply what the IOS Council inspired Fisher Report concluded regarding the commercial sustainability of the ferry service and what recent events have confirmed (operational life extension to 41 years). As a publicly supported solution would take about 3 years to deliver (based upon advice from Transport Scotland/CalMac) we have a breathing space due to the Scillonian refit but not a long one if it turns out that the vessel cannot be replaced on a purely commercial basis.

Quite rightly external observers ask why should transport links to Scilly be a burden on public? The answer to that question is to be found on the mainland. Cornwall has a mammoth tourism industry generating a visitor spend of £1.85 billion/year (2011) and responsible for ~25% of employment in Cornwall (See Note 1). This activity is entirely dependent upon Government funding of the A30, other major roads and a subsidy for railway services. The Government gets its money back through the taxes paid by individuals and businesses that prosper as a result. The Isles of Scilly generates a tourist spend of £34.1 million/year supporting approximately 75% of island employment but receives no revenue subsidy. It received financial help with capital assets in the past (1977) and there is the promise of help in the near future with harbour and airport improvements (project development monies have already been provided). As tourism is a fiercely competitive industry Scilly is seriously disadvantaged.

The result for the Isles of Scilly is sky high travel costs and limited transport services compared to comparable islands in the UK. This is making Scilly increasingly uncompetitive and Scilly is paying the price. There has been a downward trend in visitor numbers over a number of years. Scilly experienced a 1.3% drop in visitor nights between 2010 and 2011 compared to +1.7% growth in Penwith and 5.2% growth in Cornwall as a whole. Last year (2012) saw a substantial drop in visitors to Scilly whereas Penwith appears to have experienced a more modest drop - we await the detailed statistics for 2012 to confirm the situation.

There are four issues (there may be more) to consider when looking at island transport links:

- Whether a repeat of the current winter transport crisis can be avoided next winter if the only passenger option is fixed wing flights in/out of St Mary’s.

- How well the void created by the loss of the helicopter is filled by the expanded fixed wing services and the refurbished Scillonian.

- Whether the fixed wing/ferry travel combination is sustainable in the long term (2018 and beyond).

- Whether the IOS tourism industry can remain competitive with the future transport combination provided on a strictly commercial basis (relatively restricted services and high ticket prices).

Keen observers will note that ‘cheap fares’ are not the main issue . The issue is sustaining the island community in winter and sustaining its tourism based economy in the longer term with a combination of services that give visitors confidence they can get to and from the islands reliably. These issues are of critical importance to islanders and important to the economy of West Cornwall.

Note 1. Figures from "Value of Tourism - Cornwall 2010 & 2011 (produced by South West Tourism Alliance and Visit Cornwall)

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