THE FIRST Minister has been urged to “think again” over a decision not to agree further funding to the beleaguered Cairngorm mountain resort.
Officials have considered shutting the Cairngorm mountain resort for good as concerns escalate over the costs to the taxpayer of its railway, the scale of structural repairs and how it is going to be paid for.
Calls have been made for a public inquiry into the management of the Cairngorm funicular as the re-opening is not expected till late 2022 at the earliest meaning the ski center above Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands will remain without its main lift for a fourth successive ski season.
The Cairngorm funicular has been closed since September 2018 due to structural problems.
It emerged that having already pumped more than £10m in works to fix it, ministers and officials were considering scrapping the project altogether.
A dossier of internal Scottish Government documents seen by the Herald show that business minister Ivan McKee ended up sanctioning continuing with the project as the “least worst option” while warning additional finance could not be guaranteed.
Urgent repairs which are expected to rise by a third from £16m to £21m are feared to be going even higher while concerns have been expressed from within the Scottish Government’s Highland and Islands Enterprise agency about how it will be paid for.
Internal Scottish government documents shared with the Herald revealed that HIE officials are concerned about the economic pressures of the issues will have in carrying out its work in developing the economy of the Highlands and Islands.
Now the First Minister has faced Scottish Parliament calls to review a decision to progress the Cairngorm Funicular Railway repair works without providing HIE additional funding to do so, a move Highlands and Islands MSP Edward Mountain, the former convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s rural economy and connectivity committee has claimed “will cripple HIE and Highland businesses.”
During FMQs, Edward Mountain MSP asked: “First Minister, we now know the Scottish Government have decided to make HIE fund the additional repairs of the Cairngorm Funicular Railway. This will have to come from HIE’s annual £64m budget.
“We know the repair bill will be well in excess of £20m. When the Scottish Government made this decision they knew that as a consequence, some Highland businesses would lose their financial support from HIE.
“Will the Government review this decision which I believe will cripple HIE and Highland businesses?”
Nicola Sturgeon replied: “We want to support Highland businesses and we will continue to work with HIE to make sure that we can deliver on its priorities.
“I will look at this particular issue in light of the question in more detail and I’m happy to come back to the member in due course once I’ve had the opportunity to do so.”
The Cairngorms are a major Scottish tourism attraction and center for recreation with downhill hillwalking and rock climbing a major draw for the 1.92m who visit the national park every year from around the world.
Repairs have been ongoing with the world famous 1.3-mile funicular which was opened in 2001 but has been closed since September, 2018.
An internal briefing to Mr McKee on January reveals the “costs based on closing the resort” were put at at least £20m. A breakdown of the costs included £16.92m for the removal of the funicular, while some £2.9m in EU grant funding would have to be paid back. There were further heavily redacted sums calculated for the removal of other infrastructure, redundancy and other related costs as well as ongoing subsidies.
Mr Mountain said after the First Minister response: “Cairngorm Funicular Railway must be repaired, but this should not come at the expense of other Highland businesses supported by HIE.
“HIE have admitted in internal briefings that they do not have the capacity within their existing budget to meet the additional costs of fixing the funicular. The repair bill is substantial and will have, as HIE said themselves, a disproportionate impact on the agency’s ability to support Highland businesses.
“Therefore, I question why the Scottish Government have made the decision not to provide the extra funding required. If this decision is not reviewed, Highland businesses will lose out.
“I welcome that the First Minister has now promised to look into this issue in greater details and, after she has done, I would urge her to reconsider the Scottish Government’s decision to hold back further funding from HIE to complete the repair works.