Comhairle Representatives Meet Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for Islands

On Thursday 16 July 2020, Comhairle Leader Roddie Mackay, Councillor Uisdean Robertson and Chief Executive Malcolm Burr met with Paul Wheelhouse, MSP, Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands to discuss several issues relating to broadband connectivity and ferry service arrangements.

On the topic of broadband connectivity, the Comhairle raised concerns over whether current Scottish Government proposals would provide all residents of the Western Isles with superfast broadband.

Cllr Roddie Mackay, said: “The Minister was quick to reassure us that the Scottish Government’s R100 project, which guarantees superfast broadband for everyone in Scotland, will not leave anyone in the Western Isles behind.

As we move towards the new normal, and as home working becomes a reality for many, it is vital that the broadband connections of individuals in the Western Isles do not fall behind the rest of Scotland.  While the Comhairle welcomes Mr Wheelhouse’s commitment, it must be noted that the R100 project is already running far behind schedule and there are many questions still to be asked around the proposed voucher scheme, to compensate those with low broadband speeds.”

On the topic of ferries, Comhairle representatives sought an update on Transport Scotland’s future plans for repairs to vessels and ports, as well as plans for much needed new vessels to add to what is an aging fleet.  Transport Scotland confirmed that in future, a careful process of consultation and financial consideration would be taken before the procurement and undertaking of new vessels and large-scale harbour projects. They also confirmed that they would engage with islands’ communities before embarking on any new service changes. There was also a discussion on the new booking system and the need to ensure that it captured unmet demand.

With ferry capacity already reduced by social distancing measures, the Comhairle raised the important issue of the impact of Campervans on the capacity for cars and freight on our ferries.  The Comhairle also stressed the need for a new focus on training and recruitment in the islands to provide more locally based ferry crews.  A locally based crew will ensure the resilience and sustainability of the service, and lead towards the decentralisation of CalMac jobs to the islands which they serve.

Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Chairman of Transportation and Infrastructure, said: “Discussions such as these allow the Comhairle a platform to represent and lobby for the people of the Western Isles.  Connectivity has never been more important than it is today, it is vital that physical and technological connections between the Western Isles and mainland Scotland are preserved, maintained and where possible enhanced.

Through strong broadband connections and well-run transport links the residents of the Western Isles can have the freedom and equality of opportunity to communicate, innovate and help our islands thrive.  The Comhairle welcomes discussions such as these and looks forward to continuing our close working relationship on these crucial connectivity issues.”