To move that this House takes note of the transport needs of remote island communities in England.
My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to debate the transport needs of remote island communities in England, and it is my first opportunity to debate with the new Minister, whom I of course welcome.
There are not many remote islands in England. I was advised by the clerks that I could not mention the Isles of Scilly by name, but we have a few other islands in England, which the House of Lords Library has included in its very helpful briefing, including the Isle of Wight, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Lundy and the Farne Islands. I hope that I have not forgotten any inhabited islands but we shall see.
I question whether the Isle of Wight really is remote. It has several competing ferry services, so it is nothing like as remote as the Isles of Scilly. However, it has transport problems, which were ably challenged by the previous MP, Andrew Turner, and are now being taken forward by the new MP, Bob Seely. Bob Seely has also taken the initiative of forming an all-party group for islands. I have joined it and am pleased that Derek Thomas, the MP for St Ives—and Scilly—has, too. I hope that many noble Lords, as well as Members of the House of Commons, will join it. Derek continues to work hard to improve the transport services to and from Scilly. I shall concentrate my remarks on Scilly, which I think is pretty unique within England.
First, I declare an interest. My wife is a councillor on the Council of the Isles of Scilly. She is also the co-ordinator of FRIST—Friends of Isles of Scilly Transport. She has lived on the islands for 40 years. FRIST’s campaign slogan is to create,
“reliable, affordable, all year round lifeline transport links with the mainland”.
My links with the Scillies go back to 1707, when an ancestor of mine was with Admiral of the Fleet Sir Cloudesley Shovell, whose fleet got wrecked off the Isles of Scilly on the Outer Gilstone Rock, with the loss of about 2,000 lives. It was a very big disaster. My director ancestor—a future Earl of Berkeley—was in the ship behind that went on to the same rock but got washed off, otherwise I would not be here today. I am very pleased to be here today.
If you ask any islander what is the biggest challenge they face on Scilly, their answer is transport to and from the mainland. It is vital for the economy and for the islanders’ welfare and social fabric. The cost of living there is much higher. To take one example, building materials cost 40% more on the main island, St Mary’s, and 60% more on the four inhabited “off islands”.
I will briefly explain the present transport services. We have the “Scillonian” ferry service, which is celebrating its 40th birthday this summer. I am not sure that “celebrate” is the right word but we can debate that. It operates six or seven days a week from Penzance to St Mary’s, from March to November, but there are no passenger sea services in winter. There is a freight ship that operates two or three times a week, and a fixed-wing air service from Land’s End, Newquay and, in the summer, Exeter to St Mary’s. All the above are operated by one company, the Isles of Scilly Steamship Group. There was a helicopter service until 2012, when it closed. A new service is planned with a new heliport in Penzance, but the planning permission for that has been challenged by a judicial review by the steamship company. The company denies that it is a monopoly, saying that it is just a sole operator, which is an interesting definition of the words. It says that anyone else can start a service. But woe betide anyone who tries—they will get a judicial review thrown at them, on the most spurious grounds, in my view.
Turning to the costs, the single fare on the “Scillonian” is £55 and by air from Land’s End it is £80. That means that for a family of four—two adults and two children over the age of two—the cost would be well over £500 return, and you would have got only to the mainland, not to the end of Cornwall.
One of the biggest problems is reliability. The “Scillonian” gets cancelled very occasionally—it is very reliable—but flights are frequently cancelled due to the weather. In winter, 49% of the flying hours from Land’s End are disrupted. This a very high figure and there is no ferry on which people can go instead. It can mean that islanders are cut off for several days, usually due to fog or low cloud.
People suffer badly as a result of having only these unreliable flights in winter. People travelling for health appointments on the mainland can get stressed by the uncertainty. We were recently contacted by a woman patient who was unable to fly on that day because of fog who said that this was the eighth appointment that she had had to miss. Another patient attending hospital on the mainland for a scan was informed by the hospital, “If there is one more instance where you do not turn up you will not get a scan”. That is painful and horrible for people. The worry is that these instances are typical rather than exceptional. It is especially serious for people who are on a course of chemotherapy. If you want to go to a meeting you have to leave a day or two early, as do people booked on holidays, to make sure that you get to the mainland, because there is no through ticketing or code sharing.
Conversely, in summer the air service and ships are often full up—at this time I have friends who cannot get across for several days—and so the islands desperately need more capacity in the summer and an affordable and reliable winter service, preferably by ship. The helicopter will help when it starts but it will not be sufficient.
The freight situation is bad—I have a great interest in freight, although there is no rail freight to Scilly—because the steamship company appears to charge according to the whim of the staff or directives from the management. There is no transparency over the charges or even a written price list. It charges extra or delays shipping and customers can have their goods lost or damaged, as anyone who is brave enough to challenge the company frequently finds out. I have many examples of this but, sadly, I do not feel able to name names because there is a real fear among the people and companies involved that they will be added to the black list.
I will give one or two examples without names. One customer said that there is a considerable variation in freight charges, made worse by the lack of transparency. He said that eight boxes weighing 80 kilograms came in at £15.82, whereas another seven boxes from the same consignment, with the same weight of 80 kilograms, came in at £18.35. Surely there must be a price list. A second customer has strong evidence of predatory pricing, which gives an unfair advantage to the local subsidiaries of the steamship company. I suspect the CMA will want to investigate that. It should.
A third resident, a businessperson, surveyed 50 logistics companies which regularly deliver to Penzance for the islands. It is a long story but, frankly, the whole service is a disgrace, a shambles. You do not know when the freight is going to arrive or how much it is going to cost, and sometimes the company turns away deliveries at Penzance for the most spurious reasons, including slight damage to a pallet. That is crazy. He points out that the quay staff are wonderful but that communication with management does not seem to exist. His conclusion is that freight issues are stifling investment in the islands. He says that change must come to this unacceptable situation. I entirely agree.
Visitor numbers are now the mainstay of the island economy because the trade in flowers and so on has reduced over time. There is general agreement that there is plenty of space for more visitors, especially in the shoulder and winter months, but in June the air service was 2,000 passengers down on last year, largely due to fog disruption. That has a serious effect on the operators of holiday accommodation. One person told me that he is losing business because of it. He said, “The current service is not fit for purpose and the islands are losing business as a result”. That is a common complaint.
Let us compare these problems with Scotland, where the Scottish Government and the local councils support island life in a number of ways. Ferries are often operated by charging passengers on a road-equivalent tariff and commercial services often run alongside the subsidised ones. But the key difference is that services are much more frequent and fares are lower than the equivalent service for the Isles of Scilly.
I could go on about this for a long time but we need to talk about solutions. After a number of years of disagreement both within the Isles of Scilly and with the mainland about what could be done, there is now a new council with a new commitment to work together to find solutions, and I certainly welcome that. Some years ago, Ministers said at a meeting with island representatives, “Come back when you can speak with a single voice”, and of course they were quite right. Now everyone is talking with the same voice—the council, the business group known as the Islands’ Partnership, Healthwatch, FRIST, the community interest company and Cornwall Council, as well as Penzance Town Council. The two councils have done really good work on the infrastructure of the quays and airports, but that is not enough because what is needed is service improvement. The quays at St Mary’s are nice but there is no passenger service in the winter. There is a nice hardened runway at Land’s End but the planes cannot fly in the frequent foggy conditions. The current services are hopeless for anyone who wants to travel with any degree of certainty, whether for business, holidays or hospital appointments. The crews and front-line staff do a great job but they are often let down not only by the weather but by the management.
I am afraid that the situation has all the hallmarks of a lazy monopoly provider which, sadly, is putting shareholders’ returns well before the needs of its customers. I think that three changes are required. The first is competition, something we often talk about in your Lordships’ House. I know that a number of people have asked the CMA to investigate whether there is an abuse of dominant position by the sole operator, and we shall see what it says. However, it would help enormously if the air services and the sea services were run by separate and independent companies. That would bring competition, would, I am sure, improve customer service, and would probably reduce fares. The second change is something known as “aid of a social character” which is allowed under EU competition law. I hope that the Government do not sneak something in to abolish it when we go through Brexit. It would give the islanders a percentage reduction on their fares. The system operates well in Scotland and it is a major benefit to the residents there. The third change is a winter subsidy passenger service contract for a ship service perhaps three times a week to provide a cost-effective service that would be much more reliable and much cheaper than fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
Scilly needs something like this. People think that the islands are very beautiful and prosperous, but that is not the case. On 1 June last year the Daily Telegraph reported:
“Between 2014 and 2020, both Cornwall and West Wales will receive over €1,000 (£800) per person from the EU Structural and Investment Fund - similar to that received by Romania and Bulgaria”.
I know Romania well, but do we really want Cornwall and the Scillies to look like that? The present services are not fit for purpose. The new helicopter service will help, but the route needs further competition to improve reliability, reduce costs and see a step change in the freight sector, which generally thrives on competition. This is what Scotland gives its island communities in order to help them sustain their way of life and their economy. Do the UK Government not care about their own islands? They are far fewer in number but they are equally in need of support.
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will look favourably on the requests I have made, and those from other noble Lords who are to speak in the debate, and that he will agree to meet me and colleagues from the representative bodies of the islands to take forward the discussions. I hope that he will visit the Isles of Scilly to see them for himself, and I hope also that he will not be held up by the air services. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, on getting this debate and particularly on allowing all of us a quarter of an hour to speak—a restriction which I hope I will get nowhere near.
Having said that, I have some criticism in that, although I live in Cornwall and often visit west Cornwall and Scilly, I was born in Essex and worked in east London. Of course the Isle of Dogs, Canvey Island and, across the water from us, the Isle of Sheppey and the Isle of Thanet, are also key islands in the realm of England, but I think probably on the Isle of Dogs, with Canary Wharf, the problem is not one of lack of public transport.
Last autumn I had the privilege to visit Scilly and to chair a conference on the transport needs there. I was asked over as I have a background in the transport industry and represented Scilly as an MEP some years ago. I was struck—not just from my own experience over many years of travelling to Scilly, but by that well-attended conference on islands with a population of some 2,000, not all of whom were there, by many means, but a significant number of whom were, including all the decision-makers—by how much the transport facilities and access to Scilly, and between it and west Cornwall, needed to be improved, and by their unsatisfactory nature.
During my period as an MEP in the late 1990s, the same arguments were there. The issues around the replacement of the “Scillonian III” and improving the robust nature of the sea route were most important. At that time, as well, we had a helicopter route, and the airframes of those vehicles were ageing very substantially. As we found out, the property value of the heliport at Penzance was going up and up and tempting redevelopment.
Since that time, the tourist economy of Scilly has been far more challenged. Scilly has benefited for many years from a stable type of visitor who goes back many times but is of a certain age. That type of tourism is more difficult and more challenging. There are fewer people who have a tradition of going there. At one time the islands’ hoteliers were known for enjoying a season on Scilly and then the winter in the Bahamas. Those days, I regret on their behalf, are long gone. There really is an issue now about transport to these important islands some 20 or 30 miles off the west coast of the mainland.
As the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, that area of monopoly is a real challenge. It was a great disappointment to me—having supported development and planning permission for a new heliport very near to the old one, to which there were very few local objections—that there was a judicial review to hold up the process. That meant that the aspiration of people not just in Scilly but in west Cornwall to take advantage of a quite risky—in the best sense—entrepreneurial attempt to greatly improve transport connections has been put back and potentially challenged. I will not go into the motives or reasons for the judicial review but I think that it was very regrettable and that an alternative method of travel is being threatened or prejudiced. These investments, if prolonged for too long, risk not happening. This whole issue of improving these connections, bringing competition, is key.
I want to make one other point which reinforces the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley: because connections to remote islands are not a great challenge in England and Cornwall, we do not really focus on them at all—unlike in Scotland, where huge care is taken to make sure that island communities are not prejudiced in their access to services and travel to the mainland.
In terms of the Isles of Scilly, we have to change that view in respect of England and Cornwall. That community, which is more under threat than it has been in the past, now needs to be given due attention in terms of accepting that principle, which I think is right for all citizens across the United Kingdom, which is that you should not be discriminated against because you live offshore. For that reason, I would like to see government initiatives to readdress that balance between Scotland and England and Cornwall, and I would very much like to see the monopoly in transport to the Isles of Scilly challenged, with competition coming in and encouragement of greater choice not only for the citizens of Scilly but for those many adventurers who wish to cross the Atlantic to our remote islands off our west coast. Those islands are great to visit and great to live on for those who have the privilege to be there but who need to come back to the mainland for their education, for their medical needs and for all the other services that we take for granted.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for introducing this debate. I must first declare an interest as a frequent holiday visitor to Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, where our family often occupies a cottage during the first half of August—I am greatly looking forward to it in a couple of weeks’ time. I have also been known to visit Scilly in the winter when tourism is not in full swing and the 2,500-odd residents are left very much to their own devices, which isolation is the kernel of our debate.
I have raised before in this House the question of rural deprivation and isolation, and the need to rural-proof the delivery of services to rural areas—I probably bang on about it too much and will probably continue to do so. The problem is that most people, particularly those who live in the cities, do not understand that if you do not have access to your own transport then in many parts of rural England a simple trip to the hospital, to the courts or sometimes just getting to work takes on the magnitude of a major expedition. Neither do most people understand the transport difficulties of businesses struggling to survive in rural areas. How do you and your staff get to work? How do you get your goods to market or raw materials delivered? How indeed do you reach out to understand your marketplace?
I remember going with the Countryside Agency, which I chaired at the time, to visit a successful rural business—I think it was somewhere in the Welsh Marches. We asked that rural businessman what advice he would give to anyone starting a business in a rural area. He said, “Go to the towns, mate.” There was a hushed intake of breath and we thought he may not have understood who we were or what the question was. Then he went on, “Go to the towns, mate, and see what they’re wearing, see what they’re eating, see what they’re sitting on or even how they decorate their homes. It’s the urban marketplace that makes or breaks a rural business and you have to understand it, have a feel for it and use it”. They were wise words.
Think of this important connectivity from the point of view of a Scillonian. How do the people of Scilly use the urban marketplace or urban services when it is almost impossible or prohibitively costly to reach them? Imagine if in winter you have to fight for an expensive place on a small plane, vulnerable to winter weather, just to visit your family in hospital or have meaningful contact with the outside world. Imagine if your food costs were 20% more than on the mainland or if the cost of your building materials, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has already said, was nearly 50% more and petrol and heating oil were 26% to 40% more. Furthermore, imagine if your vital tourist numbers were dropping, all largely because of the high cost of transport.
Of all the examples I could choose to explain the isolation and transport difficulties of deep rural England, the Isles of Scilly must be at the top of the list. Statistically, in terms of access to services, the islands are ranked in the bottom 2% of the most deprived of all the 32,500 wards of England. As already explained by other noble Lords, the population is at the mercy of one company that virtually controls all entry and exit for not only people but also goods—raw materials in and finished products out. It makes any business, especially the tourist business, uncompetitive.
I talk to other visitors who manage to make it to the islands. There is certainly no lack of appreciation of what is on offer when they get there. It is just the hurdle of getting there that has seen the drop in visitors, particularly since 2012 when the helicopters stopped. Transport to the Isles of Scilly needs looking at urgently. The Competition and Markets Authority needs to look carefully at the monopolistic position of the Steamship Group. I will say no more about that.
Another aspect worth looking into is the question of government help for transport to and from these island communities. I was born and brought up in the north of Scotland, where for more than 50 years the Government have helped with transport to the islands. I stress the 50 years because this is not the new Scottish Government being lavish in their social policies. Even before Winnie Ewing had the twinkle in her eye of the first Scot Nat seat in Parliament in 1967, the UK Government, under the Highlands and Islands Shipping Services Act 1960, subsidised travel to the Hebrides and elsewhere in Scotland. They now have a road equivalent tariff scheme, RET, which links ferry services to the cost of travelling the same distance by road.
Without boring noble Lords with statistics, they have proven in Scotland that the number of visitors and passengers is hugely influenced by the cost of travel. Where RET applied, it gave rise to an increase of 17% in the number of passengers in two years. If RET applied to the trip from Penzance to Scilly, it would reduce the cost of a return boat trip from around £110 to £12.50—a huge difference. In terms of service, looking at the mainland connection to, say, the Isle of Islay—as a Scottish comparison of about equal distance to the mainland as Scilly is to Cornwall—the boat there runs three to four times a day and twice on Sunday. The ship, “Scillonian III”, runs once a day, not at all on Sunday and, more to the point, not at all during the winter months October to March.
Coming back to costs, while visitor numbers in Cornwall are increasing, those to Scilly are decreasing. If the Scottish analyses are correct, this is due largely to the high cost of transport. With 70% to 80% of the Scilly economy based on tourism, this is disastrous for the island inhabitants. If the Government are concerned about the extra costs of any transport support, think about the number of residents claiming benefits if the economy of the islands suffers a major collapse. That is not off the cards at the moment. Of course, I expect the Department for Transport are not too worried about extra costs to DWP—we will not go there.
What is to be done? Apart from encouraging the new helicopter service to get under way as soon as possible, the Government should look seriously at the support they can give to the people of Scilly. There is no doubt that, in winter particularly, this connection should be defined as a lifeline service and that, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, a public service obligation ought to apply during those winter months, October to March, when the ferry service currently does not run. There needs to be a winter link that is a subsidised obligation.
The Government could also look at the air discount schemes that operate for many remote parts of Scotland. In a way, that might be more useful, once helicopters are running again, than keeping the ferry service running throughout the winter, bearing in mind the age and seaworthiness of the current “Scillonian III” ferry, and the often stormy state of the seas during those critical winter months—which, of course, at the moment it does not have to face. I realise there are currently some concessions for local residents but they apply only on the ferry, which of course does not run in the winter. Furthermore, they fall well short of the two free journeys to the mainland available to the residents of the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, for those who have a national entitlement card.
None of this will encourage what is the lifeline for the people of Scilly—namely, the number of visiting tourists. They need flexible alternatives from a variety of origins at a reasonable price, with as much reliability as possible given the frequent adverse weather conditions, which is one reason why the proposed new helicopter link is so important. I realise that, in these austere times, this Government will be unlikely to introduce a road equivalent tariff along the lines of the Scottish scheme. But there may be some halfway house possible; even double the road equivalent tariff would be a huge step forward. We need something that aids the transport of people and goods to the islands—I stress “goods” because the expense of their transport undermines the quality of life on Scilly for visitors and tourists. The Government should look seriously at the options for that.
Some form of investment is definitely needed. Would it be possible for instance for the Government to grant aid, by way of an investment or capital loan, for the replacement of the current passenger and freight ferries and the facilities needed at either end? This would reduce the time and thus the costs of getting people and goods to and from the islands. That might be doable and would certainly be helpful. Something needs to be done, and I ask that the Government look seriously at what they can do to help what is an urgent economic and social problem in the making. A taskforce is required to look at what is needed to improve the connectivity of the Isles of Scilly. If we look at the comparables, these are virtually the only islands in Europe that get no really effective transport aid.
I know that much of what I have said echoes the views of the noble Lords who spoke before me, and will no doubt be re-echoed by those who follow, but before I sit down I would like to re-echo what the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, was hinting at. Just because an Englishman is born on an island, that does not make him a recluse or a hermit. Our society and our Government owe it to him to be able to live a full life of contribution to our nation’s social and economic progress. In the same way as we have for generations tried to help the urban deprived to fulfil their potential, so we must equally help our islanders. The solutions may be different, but the focus must be the same. We must not abandon them, and something must be done.
My Lords, islands are special places and I am so grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for this debate and for learning, in his speech and those which have followed, so much more about the context of the Isles of Scilly. I discovered the Isles of Scilly only a few years ago. They are magical but after the boat trip over there, I understood why you can buy fridge magnets saying “I survived the ‘Scillonian’”.
Today, it is the transport needs of another remote island community I wish to speak about: the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. It is a very special place in my diocese. The island has been designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. There is a national nature reserve covering 3,500 hectares. It has a rich historical and spiritual heritage including Lindisfarne Castle, owned by the National Trust, and Lindisfarne Priory, managed by English Heritage. The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is of course where St Aidan founded his monastery in the 7th century and based his mission to the people of Northumbria. For many it is a place of pilgrimage and if anyone who is able has not yet had the experience of walking barefoot the Pilgrim’s Way, following the poles across the water at low tide, then I commend it to your Lordships as a simply wonderful experience.
For the majority who do not walk the Pilgrim’s Way, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne has a road link to the mainland. This is a tidal causeway and Holy Island becomes an island twice a day every day of the year, with the times of access changing with the tidal pattern. At the beginning and end of access, traffic can be very heavy on the narrow causeway. Despite numerous clear warning signs, unbelievably, quite often someone chances their arm and writes off their car in the rising waters and needs rescuing. The tide is not under human control. It can be very inconvenient, but this natural rhythm of the sea is treasured by the residents, who number just over 100, many of whose families have been on the island for generations. The time when the tide rises and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne truly becomes an island once again is treasured by those who live there and those who are lucky enough to stay overnight on the island. As the vicar of Holy Island puts it, “when the cars depart, the birds reinhabit the streets and the island becomes a very special sanctuary”.
The transport need of this remote island community is not to increase access but to manage access so as many people as possible can enjoy this special place. The manager of the national nature reserve believes it is not people but vehicles that are the problem. He urges that thought be given now to future-proofing the island so it does not become a giant car park. He believes that some sort of park-and-ride scheme may offer the solution.
Whatever the solution may be, it is important that the islanders’ voices be heard. We have heard this plea made for the residents of the Scilly Isles. It is very easy for the voices of the people who live on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne to be drowned out by the many other interests. Large bodies have an interest, but the islanders’ interests must be heard. Islands are special places. One thing is clear: each island is unique and there can be no one-size-fits-all solution. In every place, we need to protect each island’s environment and listen to the needs of those who live and work there, and those needs must be prioritised. On the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, the Isles of Scilly and our other wonderful islands we must not inadvertently destroy that which we love the most.
My Lords, I shall follow what the right reverend Prelate said. I used to work in Northern Ireland, and the Giant’s Causeway is in some ways a similar tourist attraction. The National Trust does not let you approach close to the Giant’s Causeway. It has a bus service which brings you down the narrow road from the car park, which is not only a bit more remote but is out of sight. The idea of linking an island, where it can be done, with some form of park-and-ride service is a very good one. I cannot see why the people whose cars are driven over there should not pay the cost of it, but somebody needs to get on top of the problem and do something about it.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for introducing this debate. My relationship with the Isles of Scilly is tenuous. For two periods of my railway career, I was responsible for the railways in Cornwall. On one occasion, I intended to visit the Isles of Scilly, but I was unable to do so because it was foggy. It was summer. Fog does not happen only in winter. It is a perpetual hazard.
The Minister has to ask himself and his Government whether they really value the islands. It has been pointed out by several noble Lords that the Scottish Government do. I have given the example of the Giant’s Causeway. Although it is not an island, it nearly is. Other islands, such as Rathlin Island off Ireland, are valued by the Government. We should turn the Government’s attention to that issue.
In previous debates and in Questions mostly asked by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, about the Scillies, the reply from the Government Benches has been that it is an open market and anybody can have a helicopter service or a shipping service if they want to enter the market. Anybody who does must like being invited to put his head into the dragon’s mouth, because they will be set upon by the incumbent.
I shall talk about making things better. I shall not talk about maritime things because I do not know anything about boats and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, will tell us more about the ships. In a couple of years’ time, the Great Western railway franchise will come up for renewal. My contacts there tell me that it regards the present sleeper service from Paddington as an act of charity, but that service is improving and it could be made better by two things. First, the Scottish sleeper services are going to be replaced, which will free for other use some of the vehicles presently employed between London and Scotland. I am not talking about a huge increase in capacity, but if the sleeper car train had six sleeping carriages, they would regularly be full, particularly if much more effort was put into promoting tourism within this country—a subject one of my noble friends refers to often. We do not promote our tourist industry.
If there were a decent, regular service, it would make a difference. I am not saying it would solve the problem because the final link has got to be made through the various ideas noble Lords have suggested, but simple things can probably be done before. The Monday morning service coming from Paddington overnight arrives at Penzance less than an hour, I think, before the Scillonian leaves.
It is 10 minutes.
Thank you very much. Ten minutes—that is absolutely ridiculous. The Government can do something. I do not accept that they can brush it off and say that is a matter for Great Western. They set the terms of the franchise, and they should be active rather than passive and hands-off.
Can the Minister tell us whether the position of the Scillies will be made worse if we leave the EU—or, to use the Minister’s probable words, when we leave the EU? I prefer the first version. What effect will the decision to leave the EU have on the economy of the Scillies? Are the Government prepared to make some sort of commitment to replace any funding that the Scillies receive?
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for introducing this debate. One of the advantages of being tail-end Charlie is that most of the things you were going to say have already been said, but on my calculations I have an hour available should I need it. I assure your Lordships that I will take up only a fraction of that time.
I was most interested to hear the right reverend Prelate talking about Holy Island and taking us away from the Isles of Scilly. I remember going there many years ago with a friend. We were enjoying a few drinks in the pub when all of sudden the publican cried out, “All those for England”, and we all had to up sticks and leave, thereby leaving the islanders to carry on their carousing into the night.
I lived for quite a few years in the same town as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, where the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, currently has a house, so I am very familiar with Cornwall, although I have visited the Scillies only once. That was back in the early 1950s, when we flew from St Just in a Dragon Rapide. Some of your Lordships may be old enough to remember that: it was a sort of canvas and struts biplane. We happened to fly through two, rather violent hail-storms on the way. As a 10 or 11 year-old, I was very apprehensive, I can tell your Lordships.
Slightly more recently, I was on a trip from here with the defence group, in a Nimrod from St Mawgan. One of the other noble Lords on board happened to have a holiday home in the Scillies. He had a word with the pilot and the pilot thought, “Come on, we’ll go and have a look at it”. We came in very low over the runway, at a very low speed. The noble Lord said, “Oh, there’s my house”, and the pilot then thought, “Let’s get out of here”. He pulled out all the stops and we did a power climb which must have shaken every window in Scilly. We got, quite correctly, a sound reprimand from the control tower.
The noble Lord who just spoke referred to nautical matters. I have been becalmed for many hours in previous Fastnet races off the Scilly Isles, so have had plenty of time to observe them, and I will talk about the sea connection in my few minutes of remarks. The “Scillionian III” has been mentioned, which reached her 40th anniversary in May this year. I would describe her as a prime example of a ship that was built specifically for the route she was intended to serve on. That is extremely important, especially in the case of the Scillies, because not only does the ship have to carry 500 passengers and a certain amount of freight, she also has to be capable of taking the ground at low water in St Mary’s. There are remarkably few modern ships of that type around today.
I know that the Isles of Scilly company has been looking at potential second-hand ships—I have had a look myself—but there are almost no ships of that type around at all. All the ships available are what are termed ro-ro ships—roll-on roll-off ships—where you need special ramps at either end for road traffic to come on and off. I would argue that a ro-ro ship would not really be suitable for the Isles of Scilly. You only have some nine miles of road in St Mary’s, and I cannot think why anybody would ever want to take a car there. In fact, I am surprised private cars have not been banned from going there. If anyone is stupid enough to pay the enormous fare to take their car, I suppose they are welcome to it. But the other factor is a ship that carries a lot of cars needs a lot of extra space: cars take up an awful lot of room, and for that reason your limited draught would create a great problem.
What really needs to happen is for the Government, Cornwall Council and maybe even the Duchy to sit down and look at plans for a proper replacement for the “Scillionian III” and to build a ship that would last, hopefully, another 40 years but which would be purpose-built and would suit all the islands’ needs. They could for instance, bearing in mind all the changes going on in regulations at sea, power her with liquefied natural gas, something that Caledonian MacBrayne is doing for two of its new ferries being built up on the Clyde. We could have a new ship, built in a British yard. Sadly, we have very few British yards still capable of doing this, but there is Appledore, where the current “Scillonian” was built, or Ferguson, on the Clyde, or possibly even Cammell Laird. A British-built ship, flying the Red Ensign, would be a wonderful achievement.
We are looking at an updated version of the present vessel, capable of carrying some 500 passengers and a certain amount of freight. I see absolutely no reason why vans should be taken to the Scilly Isles with freight—what is the point? You can bring the van to the quay in Penzance, offload the freight, put it on the ship and put it on to a van at the other end. You do not need to move vehicles backwards and forwards.
I think my noble friend on the Cross Benches mentioned this, but believe it or not, the present “Scillonian” was designed to work year-round, and for the first 13 years of her life, she did so. I have a photograph in my pocket here of her passing the Wolf Rock in 1979, when she was two years old—and that was on the last day of the year. The new ship must be capable of year-round operation. There is the rather extraordinary idea of having this freight ship. The right reverend Prelate mentioned the “I survived the ‘Scillionian’” badge. I think we ought to club together and give the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, a special badge, because he survived the “Gry Maritha”, the small freight ship, in the middle of a winter on a very rough crossing. She is about to be replaced by a slightly larger vessel, also second-hand from Norway, but I would describe her as perhaps a slightly larger floating shoe-box compared with the other vessel. Having sailed many seas of the world in all sorts of weather, I would certainly not like to travel in that ship in the depths of winter.
I return briefly to the “Scillonian” and her design. The waters between Land’s End and Scilly are probably, potentially, the roughest waters in this country. Only just over a year ago, a wave was recorded off Land’s End of 90 feet in height, which gives you some idea of the sort of conditions that need to be met. A new ship could be slightly faster, enabling it to do two trips a day at peak times; it could operate perhaps two or three times a week in the winter. Who would pay for this ship? It is not beyond the wit of the three organisations I mentioned earlier—the Government, Cornwall Council and the Duchy—to get together and look at potential designs for the ship. It would serve the island well and in my opinion would be the best thing to do, although I welcome the idea of the helicopter coming back.
The danger is that if you build a larger ship, particularly a ro-ro ship, you will get—as I am sure the islanders would like—many more tourists visiting. But as the right reverend Prelate said, the charm of these islands is in their remoteness and quietness, and a lot of the people who go there really appreciate that, which is why they go there. It would be wrong to swamp Scilly with thousands and thousands of tourists.
My Lords, in case anyone thinks I have popped up at the wrong point in the debate, the list of speakers is in the wrong order. For a moment, I thought the Liberal Democrat group had been promoted in our proceedings, but it was an error. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for bringing the excellent topic of this debate to our attention.
I am conscious we are all sitting here vaguely thinking about our summer holidays with some sense of anticipation, so I want to tell the House about my summer holiday last year—do not worry, I am not going to pass around the holiday snaps. Late last summer, I spent a wonderful, magical holiday on the Scilly Isles—on this occasion, on Tresco. I do not pretend to have the depth of knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, but I have visited the Scillies on several occasions. My links go back not to 1747 but to 1970. Over the years, I have travelled there on the famous “Scillonian”, which has been mentioned so much today. I attest to the fact that it requires a very strong stomach because the journey lasts for nearly three hours. When I went on the “Scillonian”, there was a joke going around the passengers that the new captain of the ship, who had sailed the world over, had been sea-sick when he first took over the “Scillonian”, which tells you about the sort of voyage you have, even on a fairly calm day.
Many noble Lords have mentioned that the “Scillonian” operates only for seven months of the year. It is the cheapest option for getting to the islands but is, nevertheless, very expensive, especially compared with, for example, the ferries to the Scottish islands. In the past I went to the Scillies by helicopter—and I regretted very much when it ceased to operate—but last year I went from Land’s End by fixed-wing plane. Rather predictably, the flight was delayed due to fog, so I had the interesting experience of observing them trying to catch up once it had cleared. It is a very difficult process because the plane is so small. There is not much capacity for cramming in additional passengers.
During my holiday, I experienced a potentially serious problem with my eyes and required to see an optometrist urgently. Some people may be surprised to hear that there is no optometrist on the islands and so I had to go to the mainland. To me, that is the definition of a lifeline service. It puts into perspective the points we have heard today about the importance of transport links. Of course, I was a tourist and for me it was a minor inconvenience, but put yourself in the position of a resident of the Scillies in the middle of winter and you immediately face immense issues of time and cost.
As has already been said, the Scillies have a lower GVA per head than even Cornwall. Cornwall is one of the poorest areas of the EU in that it has been designated as being below 75% of the EU average. The Scillies’ GVA is 80% of that of Cornwall as a whole. They also rely greatly on tourism, and tourism relies on reasonable costs. I talked to a large number of people whose reaction to my holiday on the Scillies was, “I’d love to go, but it is so expensive”. For residents, the issue is frequency and cost, especially in the winter months.
I was very pleased when the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, possibly rather predictably, mentioned freight. It is very easy to spend our time talking about passengers, when actually freight is of equal importance because the complexities of getting it to the islands adds considerably to the living costs of local people. Drawing on the previous speaker’s theme, there is a need to improve the ports at both St Mary’s and Penzance in order to make the islands more accessible.
The way in which the Scillies are treated compared with the Scottish islands—regarding frequency of service, the cost and all-year-round availability—is very stark. The Scottish islands benefit from public service obligation-supported flights. They benefit from the special islands need allowance and additional funding based on sparsity and lower GVA per head. It is important to recognise that the Scillies are in a vicious circle. The issues tend to deter the number of tourists that the islands would wish to accommodate, and there is hence a knock-on effect on the prosperity of the islanders as a whole. It also deters people from remaining as long-term residents. Those who can move away often do and cite cost of living and difficulty of access as key issues.
The crux of the problem, as has been said across the House today, is that ferry services to the islands operate on a commercial basis, unlike in Scotland—indeed, unlike for many other remote islands in Europe. Reduced winter fares for the Skybus service are useful but totally inadequate compensation to local residents because the weather so often interrupts the service.
Why is there no air service to the island that benefits from a public service obligation? There are 22 air services in the UK that benefit from PSO designation. They have enjoyed that definition as a lifeline service. All but three of those 22 services involve Scotland at least at one end of the journey. It is important that we have a clear answer to why it is reasonable to designate as a PSO service the Cardiff to Anglesey route or the Dundee to Stansted route but not, let us say, Newquay to St Mary’s or perhaps Land’s End to St Mary’s. Why is it not possible to do that?
The attempts to delay the reintroduction of the helicopter service, highlighted by several speakers today, reveal the true situation of the ferry service—it is an attempt to maintain an effective monopoly. Ferry services to the island are not a true competitive market by any economic analysis. Obviously another operator could enter the market, but the fact that no one has tried is a sure sign of the difficulties they would face. The noble Lord outlined the highly specialised nature of the “Scillonian”, the flat-bottomed boat. The huge cost of replacing the current “Scillonian”—the “Scillonian III” —is another factor that has to be addressed, I believe, by the Government. We cannot allow the residents of the Scillies in the 21st century to be cast adrift like this. Many people describe the Scillies as like going back into the 1950s. That is part of their charm, but there is absolutely no reason why their residents should have to endure a 1950s standard of living.
The Government need to accept that the 2,000 residents of the Isles of Scilly deserve better. There is not a fully competitive market for transport to the Scilly Isles. I ask myself continually why is it that, if you live in central London, it is acceptable for a great deal of public money to be used to subsidise transport. The reason often given is, in part, that it supports a very lucrative tourism industry. Why is it possible to subsidise transport for Londoners but not for people who live on the Scilly Isles? Why is it not possible to look at this in the round from the point of view of the importance of the tourism industry to the Isles of Scilly? The Government need to examine their current approach. It is unfair, short-sighted and, I believe, economically and socially self-defeating.
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate, which, although on the subject of the transport needs of remote island communities in England as a whole, has centred mainly on the position of the Isles of Scilly, a favourite holiday location of a former Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who indeed is buried on St Mary’s. I have also visited Holy Island, in the right reverend Prelate’s diocese—although I am afraid I visited by car—and I regard Northumberland as among the most scenic and attractive counties in England, one that seems to remain largely undiscovered by most people south of the Wash.
My indefatigable noble friend Lord Berkeley has raised his concerns about the transport links between the Isles of Scilly and the mainland on a number of occasions in this House. One has always sensed a deep frustration on his part at some of the replies he has received, and the very helpful briefing prepared by our Library sets out some of those previous exchanges. My noble friend has set out in some detail the concerns over the present transport links in relation to the needs of the Isles of Scilly in his powerful speech that opened the debate.
As my noble friend said, the present transport links from the Isles of Scilly to the mainland are provided by a 40 year-old ship that runs from Penzance to St Mary’s six days a week from mid-March to late October. There is a separate freight vessel that operates two or three times a week and can take a handful of passengers, and there are flights from St Mary’s to and from Land’s End and Newquay all year round—again for six days a week, I think—and to Exeter in the summer only. As I understand it, those services are all operated by the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company. A new helicopter service has been proposed to serve the Isles of Scilly from Penzance, but it is both literally and metaphorically yet to get off the ground following a judicial review challenge by the steamship group.
The existing services to the Isles of Scilly are not always as reliable as they might be, as my noble friend and other noble Lords have said. On my one visit to the Scilly Isles three or so years ago, our flight from Exeter was cancelled due to fog. We were driven by taxi from Exeter to Penzance, where we stayed in a hotel overnight before being driven out to Land’s End Airport the following morning for a flight to the Isles of Scilly. It was a somewhat longer journey overall than we had expected, and this was not in the middle of winter. I have to say I spent most of my time on the flight from Land’s End to Saint Mary’s wondering what the consequences would be if the one person who appeared to be flying the plane had a sudden heart attack. However, the flight back to Exeter at the end of our holiday ran as scheduled and with two people at the controls.
On previous occasions when my noble friend Lord Berkeley has raised this issue, and again today, he has drawn attention, as have other noble Lords, to the difference between the support—or rather the lack of it—for transport links to the Isles of Scilly and that given by the Scottish Government to transport links to Islay, which has a population comparable to that of the Isles of Scilly and is a not dissimilar distance from the mainland. The fares to Islay on the ferry are much lower and the ferry runs much more frequently, including throughout the year. When the Government were asked in 2012 by my noble friend why the Isles of Scilly cannot be treated in a similar way transport-wise to Islay, the reply was:
“As regards the comparison with the Scottish situation, it is difficult to make valid direct comparisons when the circumstances vary and the service is rather more complicated”.
That seems less like an answer to the question that my noble friend asked and more like an attempt to avoid answering it. If the Minister is going to give a similar response today, perhaps he could explain what the circumstances are that make it difficult to make a valid direct comparison, and in what way the service is so much more complicated that it makes such a comparison with Islay and the Scilly Isles difficult.
The Government gave a similar answer when the matter of the contrast with Scotland was raised again in October 2012 by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. They said that,
“the situation in Scotland is different because it involves much more complicated and wide-ranging services that cannot be operated on a commercial basis. At the moment, the service to the Isles of Scilly is operated on a commercial basis”.
When challenged again, the Government said that,
“we could make a public service obligation if the market failed. The market has not yet failed. In addition, there would have to be a competitive bidding process. We do not want to interfere at this point because we want to see whether there will be a commercial solution to the problem”.—[Official Report, 24/10/12; cols. 202-03.]
That is an interesting answer. Note from it that for the Government in 2012 providing an all-year-round ferry service to the Isles of Scilly, with lower fares and charges, was regarded as “interference”. I am not sure that is how the residents of the Isles of Scilly would see it, nor those considering whether they can afford the cost of travelling to the Scilly Isles for a holiday.
With what the Government presumably see as “interference”, the service to Islay has much lower fares and greater frequency and runs throughout the year. The market has failed to deliver that to the Isles of Scilly. This issue affects not just passenger fares, whether by ship or by air, but, as has been said, freight costs for those seeking to run businesses and provide employment on the Isles of Scilly. The ferry service to the Isles of Scilly cannot be operated on a commercial basis that delivers a higher frequency all year round or at fare levels comparable to the Islay service. Indeed, even when the scheduled ferry service runs between March and November, I believe it is not possible—although the situation may now have changed—to do a day return trip from the Scilly Isles to the mainland on the regular scheduled ferry service.
In their response on 24 October 2012 that I repeated a few moments ago, the Government said that,
“we want to see whether there will be a commercial solution to the problem”.—[Official Report, 24/10/12; col. 203.]
What do the Government regard as the “problem” to which they referred in that response and what would a “commercial solution”, to which they also referred in that response, have to deliver to resolve that problem?
There is the prospect of a helicopter service being reopened between the Isles of Scilly and Penzance. While planning permission has been granted for a new heliport at Penzance, there is, as has been said, apparently an outstanding judicial challenge to the grant of planning permission from the company that operates the existing air and ferry services to and from the mainland. The chair of that company has apparently said:
“Our primary concern relates to the serious socio-economic consequences of creating a new heliport and the effect the proposal will have on the long term sustainability of the wider transport network and future investment in it, including a replacement for the”,
present vessel operating the ferry service. Obviously I cannot comment on the validity or otherwise of that concern, but it seems to say that there is not room for both the existing operator services and a new helicopter service on the route from Penzance. If that is the case, would it not explain why the fares are so high and the level of service so inadequate? Does it not suggest that insisting that the links between the Isles of Scilly and the mainland must be run on a commercial basis means in reality a virtual monopoly for whichever operator is running the services?
As has been said, the Scottish Government have introduced a road-equivalent tariff for lifeline ferry services as the basis for single fares. There have been reports in local media that this has resulted in significant increases in tourism due to the reduction in ferry fares under the scheme. Tourism accounts for 75% to 80% of the local economy on the Isles of Scilly, so presumably better, more reliable, all-year-round transport links at fares more akin to those applicable on ferry and air services to comparable islands in Scotland could be of considerable benefit to the main revenue-earning industry for the Isles of Scilly. In that context, we are talking about one of the poorest areas in both the UK and the EU when referring to the Isles of Scilly and the wider Cornwall area.
It may be that in their response, the Government will be able to provide figures indicating a rather different picture from that painted so far in this debate. They may be able to show that tourism in the Isles of Scilly is booming. They may be able to show that the present transport links do not act as a deterrent to tourists considering whether to visit the Isles of Scilly. They may be able to show that businesses and residents on the Isles of Scilly are not hampered by high freight charges or the level of passenger fares by air or sea. They may be able to show that the benefits to the economy of the Isles of Scilly of improved transport links at lower fares and charges would be a lot less than any additional costs of securing those improved links at lower fares and charges. They may be able to show that the gross disposable income per head and gross value added figures for the Isles of Scilly paint a picture of steadily increasing prosperity with the existing level of transport links. Alternatively, they may not be able to show any of those things.
I hope that the Government will respond positively to the points and concerns expressed by my noble friend Lord Berkeley. I would not want to be left—I say this tongue in cheek—wondering whether the Government’s seeming lack of enthusiasm for addressing the transport needs of the Isles of Scilly was being influenced by the fact that a former Labour Prime Minister loved the Isles of Scilly and has them as his final resting place.
My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for securing this debate on the transport needs of remote island communities in England. I know that he has for many years taken a keen interest in the future of island connectivity—in particular, to his beloved Isles of Scilly. In the presence of so many other admirers of the Isles of Scilly, at this point I should say in confession, in front of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle, that I have never been to the Isles of Scilly but I have been many times to Lindisfarne, the holy island in the north-east but, given the glowing descriptions from many noble Lords, I look forward to the opportunity to visit the Scilly Islands.
Most of the speakers in the debate have concentrated on the Isles of Scilly, except for the right reverend Prelate, who waxed lyrical about the wonderful Holy Island, in Northumberland, which, as I said, I have visited many times. There is indeed a road connection for part of the year, and it is a source of amazement to me—as it will be to other Members from the north-east—that every year there are tales of people’s cars floating off the causeway. I assure your Lordships that it is not possible for the council to put any bigger signs indicating the required crossing times and the consequences if you do not adhere to them. The most amazing thing is that normally, these are not people who speak a foreign language and do not understand English, but people from the local area or other communities in the United Kingdom, who just wilfully ignore the signs and see their car floating away in the distance as the tide comes in. They normally take the rescue and shelter halfway across. There is no legislation against stupidity, I fear.
I take note of the right reverend Prelate’s suggestion of a park-and-ride scheme. I am sure that she will understand that is a matter for the local authorities to determine. I am sure that under its new leadership, Northumberland County Council will look closely at her suggestion. She is fortunate to represent what is in my biased opinion one of the nicest dioceses in the country.
As an island nation, the movement of goods and people by air and sea is vital to the economic well-being of this country—95% of our trade by volume either arrives or departs by sea—but it is equally vital on a smaller scale for internal traffic within our smaller island communities. Indeed, that is the subject at hand. With three operators and around 9 million passenger crossings each year, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, observed, I am not so sure that the Isle of Wight falls into this category. I read with interest the briefing produced by the House Library, which concentrated to a remarkable extent on the Isle of Wight, which no one could argue is a remote island community. However, it shares with other islands the basic fact that it costs more—consumes more resources—per passenger mile to move people by ferry or by air than by road.
The Isles of Scilly are of course by far the most obvious example of our subject for debate today, and most Members have concentrated on them. Perhaps it will help the House if I briefly recap the background to the Isles of Scilly’s services by sea and by air, to build on the excellent introduction provided by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley.
Passenger and freight ferry services from the mainland to the Isles of Scilly have always been provided commercially without operating subsidy—under Conservative and Labour Governments, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, will be aware.
The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, referred to the passenger ship RMV “Scillonian”, as did several noble Lords. It is now 40 years old, although it underwent a substantial refit in 2012. I have heard the various criticisms, but it is also fair to say that it is duly certificated, registered as seaworthy and entirely fit and appropriate for the services which it provides. If it was not, it would not be allowed to provide them.
In recent years the local partners—led by Cornwall Council—known as the Route Partnership, put together a funding bid for a new purpose-built passenger and freight vessel to replace the two current vessels, and for significant harbour improvements at Penzance and St Mary’s. The new vessel was to be owned by Cornwall Council and chartered to an operator by competitive tender. The rationale for that proposed arrangement was that the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company could not afford to replace the current passenger vessel when it reached the end of its useful life, and neither could any other operator provide a financially viable service.
The Department for Transport then invited bids for smaller-scale harbour improvements, but declared that as long as passenger services remained in commercial operation, it did not believe that there was a case for an ongoing subsidy. I am sorry to say that that, in essence, remains the Government’ position now.
In the meantime, the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company has also undertaken to replace its year-round cargo ferry, the “Gry Maritha”, having acquired a significantly larger vessel, currently named “Mali Rose”, which could also carry up to six passengers in the winter months, at the master’s discretion. This vessel, I understand, requires substantial refurbishment before it can replace the “Gry Maritha”.
The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company has said that it intends to replace the current passenger vessel, the RMV “Scillonian III”, probably with a new build vessel, but that it believes that the ship can continue operating beyond 2020 if necessary. We await developments on that front, but the vessel appears capable of meeting demand during its months of operation.
Although the Government do not believe that there is a case for an ongoing subsidy, we remain committed to ensuring that services to remote island communities continue. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, referred to subsidies for freight services. The Government have invested over £6 million towards the £11 million project to improve the quays at St Mary’s, dredge Penzance Harbour and undertake land access improvements to improve the vital sea connection between the Isles of Scilly and the mainland for passengers and freight by opening up both harbours to a wider range of vessels in future. Building on the development work initially undertaken by the Council of the Isles of Scilly and Penzance Town Council, Cornwall Council undertook to act as the lead delivery authority and the works were completed in June 2016.
Scheduled commercial flights to the Isles of Scilly commenced as long ago as 1937. Today, regular flights operate to St Mary’s Airport from Land’s End and Newquay airports, and, seasonally, Exeter Airport. The runway at St Mary’s has recently been resurfaced and Land’s End Airport now has its first tarmac runway. Flights are operated commercially—again by the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company under the Skybus brand—and, like ferry services, have continued to operate free from subsidy. The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company has also invested in additional aircraft and expanded its service following the discontinuation in October 2012 of the British International Helicopters’ Penzance to St Mary’s helicopter service. According to the Steamship Company, passenger traffic by sea has increased in recent years, from just under 105,000 in 2014 to just under 116,000 in 2016. Air passengers have also increased from just under 91,000 to 95,000 in the same period, although this remains below the 155,000 passengers that were transported in 2011, which was the last full year of the helicopter service.
Transport to remote island communities is a free market and other operators are able to enter that market if they wish. In fact, I am aware of the current proposals—as noble Lords have mentioned—to recommence helicopter services to both St Mary’s and Tresco through the construction of a replacement heliport at Penzance. I understand that planning consent was approved by Cornwall Council in March 2017. However, noble Lords will understand that, because the proceedings are subject to judicial review, I am unable to comment further on that service.
The noble Lords, Lord Berkeley, Lord Cameron and Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, referred to the issue potentially being referred to the Competition and Markets Authority—I think the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, also mentioned this. Let me set out the position. The relevant legislation is Chapter 2 of the Competition Act 1998, on abuse of a dominant position, and Chapter 3, which covers investigation and enforcement. The CMA has wide discretion to construe a relevant market, which could include more than one transport mode and could extend to a market as modest in scale as the Scilly service—much smaller indeed than the Isle of Wight market, which was previously examined by the CMA’s predecessor, the OFT, and the Competition Commission. However, the CMA also operates formal prioritisation principles, which include the size of the market and the impact of the case. Depending on other workload, it may decide that the complaint about the Scilly services does not have sufficient priority to justify the resources required to investigate a case of this sort. It is a matter for the CMA.
A number of Members raised the issue of the Scottish islands and made comparisons with the services there. The Scottish Government, through Transport Scotland, provide financial assistance to reduce the cost of ferry travel on routes that are considered lifelines for remote island communities, and support a number of air routes to the islands through public service obligations. The Scottish Government are, of course, answerable to Scottish taxpayers for their own funding priorities, but I highlight that it is very difficult to compare the needs and services of groups of islands around the UK, and that the situation in Scotland is very different because the services mostly cannot be operated on a commercial basis. While there is no specific legal impediment in relation to public service obligations for remote island communities in England, at the moment the services to the Isles of Scilly are operated on a commercial basis. If the situation changes in this respect, then of course the matter could be reviewed.
The noble Lords, Lord Berkeley and Lord Rosser, also raised the issue of the abuse of a monopoly—the same company providing both air and sea connections. We do not believe that this, in itself, is sufficient evidence to show abuse; despite the modest capacity of the terminals, it remains open to other providers to provide ferry and/or air services to the Scillies. I would be delighted if the market came to support more than one operator; however, that is not yet happening from either Penzance or elsewhere. The fact that it is not suggests that there is not some huge super-profit being exploited, into which a competitor could easily make inroads. The growth in passenger traffic at least suggests that fares are not prohibitive.
I will answer some of the other questions that noble Lords have raised. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley—I think—asked about the quality and reliability of the air service. I totally appreciate the annoyance and distress caused to passengers when such events occur, but this is a matter for the interested parties, including the relevant local councils and users, to take up with the operator of the commercial services. Of course, it is for the pilot in command to decide whether to operate a flight in adverse weather conditions. The noble Lord also asked why cheaper air or ferry services cannot be offered for permanent residents. I understand that discounts are already available for permanent residents; further discounts would, again, be a matter for the interested parties to consider, including the operators, users and local councils. So long as EU treaty rules apply, in the first instance it would be for them to produce a draft notification justifying the preferential terms as aid of a social character in a remote region.
The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, raised the issue of the Scottish islands—I think I have responded already to that question—and asked about an air discount scheme. The air discount scheme for flights within Scotland is of course a matter for the Scottish Government. The scheme is not applicable to air routes in Scotland supported by public service obligations. Any exemption applied for in respect of air routes to the Isles of Scilly would have to be eligible for this type of aid under European Union state aid guidelines.
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, raised the issue of the current train franchise and sleeper service from London. The current Great Western franchise is due to be replaced by April 2020 and officials have begun engaging with interested parties to identify potential priorities for the route franchise. I will ensure that the noble Lord’s points about the sleeper service are considered as part of the franchise replacement process. In addition, train services to Penzance are being substantially upgraded. A new £360 million fleet of bi-mode intercity express trains will replace the older high-speed trains on the London route, bringing journey time savings. Local services to Plymouth are being upgraded to two trains an hour, enabled by Network Rail’s re-signalling work. We particularly welcome the substantial contributions being made by Cornwall Council and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly local enterprise partnership to the modernisation of the Night Riviera sleeper trains and improvements to stations in Cornwall and London for sleeper passengers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, made a very good point about the provision of emergency medical evacuations. Where commercial transport is not suitable or available, there are arrangements in place to evacuate patients who require emergency treatment using either Cornwall Air Ambulance or search and rescue services, both of which are based at Cornwall Airport Newquay.
The term “lifeline” is often used to describe vital transport connections between mainland and island communities. Although this term carries no formal or legal status, the Government recognise the importance of passenger and freight services to remote island communities in England, and that is why we remain committed to ensuring that these continue. My officials have met delegations on a number of occasions to discuss transportation to and from island communities such as the Isles of Scilly, and I assure noble Lords who have spoken in the debate that they remain available to do so in the future.
My Lords, is it the Government’s view that the present air and sea services to the Isles of Scilly, including the current fares and charges, are having a dampening effect on the economy of the Isles of Scilly?
As I said earlier, passenger traffic is increasing. The services continue to be operated on a commercial basis. I accept the points noble Lords have made about the desirability of increased connections—of course, everybody would like increased connections and better services to their communities—but there is no evidence of a detrimental effect on the community.
My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. We have learned a great deal about the problems and issues around travel and transport mainly to and from the Isles of Scilly. However, it was good to hear the right reverend Prelate talk about the challenges of getting to Holy Island, and the joys and benefits of island communities, with or without cars, once you get there.
All noble Lords who spoke about the Isles of Scilly said that there is effectively a failure of the present market, given that the service is pretty awful and is getting worse, and expressed concerns about the future of the islands unless something is done about that. I am not going to go on for too long about individual contributions but it was interesting to hear the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, talk about the need for a replacement ship. For the last five years, we have heard that the steamship company was going to replace the “Scillonian III”. Two or three years ago, that ship managed to sail for a whole summer without a valid safety certificate because nobody had picked that up. It was not discovered until November of that year, when it was too late to do anything. There is no evidence that that company has the finance, or possibly the ability, to buy and operate a new ship. It says that it has but it has been saying that for five years. Perhaps the “Scillonian” will limp on for another five years and we shall all enjoy going on it. However, there will probably be more constraints with regard to the number of passengers and it still will not operate in the winter.
It is interesting that the Minister’s response basically was that everything was all right and a commercial service is operating. However, we have to reflect on what would happen if that one ship, which is fairly unique, as the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, said, no longer operated. I hope that there are no accidents but it could just break down. I think that it has broken down a couple of times this year and there was no service. What would happen to the islanders in that case? The flights could take a few people and the new freight ship, if and when it is operational, could take a few more, but the island economy would be absolutely devastated, especially in the summer. There may be no definition of a lifeline service but perhaps we should think about what is reasonable in that regard.
The one thing that the Minister did not address was why Scotland is different. Commercial services operate to Islay, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, mentioned, but there is also a lifeline service. If the Scottish Government look after their islands in that way, why do not the English Government—as I call them—do likewise for the islands for which they have responsibility? We in Britain think that we are an island nation and it is all wonderful. However, it appears that the smaller islands can go hang, although, if they survive, that is quite nice. I hope that we never experience what happened to a little island off the west coast of Ireland, which was permanently evacuated by the Irish Government about 100 years ago as they could not provide a ferry service across a comparatively short stretch of water to give somebody who had just died a decent burial. We have to do better than this. We must all reflect on today’s debate, and I hope that the Minister will be prepared to have a meeting or two when we come back in the autumn to see how we can take this further.
Motion to Take Note