I had a weekend tip off that Qinetiq, which operates the Hebrides range on South Uist and Benbecula, is about to start cutting staff. Locals say 120 jobs are at stake, which is a phenomenal figure, about a sixth of the total workforce in the Southern Isles. The MoD say that talk of "mothballing" the base is scaremongering. There's an announcement on Wednesday but here's what we know so far, from the Herald:
Plans to drastically reduce operations at a missile testing range on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides with the potential loss of 120 full time jobs would sound “the death knell” for the economy of the islands, local politicians have warned.
Islanders were last night bracing themselves for an expected announcement by the Ministry of Defence that it plans to dramatically cut civilian jobs at the missile testing facility on South Uist and neighbouring Benbecula, robbing the Southern Isles of one in six local jobs.
QinetiQ, the privatised research arm of the Ministry of Defence which runs the Hebrides base on a “long term partnering agreement”, is understood to be leading the process that islanders fear would see the facility being run on a “care and maintenance” basis.
Under the proposal much of the research work could go a rival range in Aberporth on the west coast of Wales and the Hebrides range would be re-activated two or three times a year.
QinetiQ, a major international defence contractor, currently employ a total of 250 contract and local staff at Hebrides range and is the largest private employer in the Southern Isles chain, stretching almost 50 miles from from North Uist to Eriskay.
Last night Angus Campbell, the local council leader said that mothballing the facility would be have a “drastic effect” on the islands working population of approximately 650 people.
“You must remember 120 jobs in the Hebrides is the equivalent of several thousand jobs being lost in the central belt of Scotland,” said Mr Campbell.
The proposals, which will be unveiled on Wednesday, form part of a five year contract evaluation undertaken by the Qinetiq. Mr Campbell said: “We will be contacting the company, the MoD and the Scottish government first thing on Monday morning. We don’t want to be too negative but if the figures are as high as 120 then it will have a significant knock on effect on the Uists economy.”
QinetiQ would comment in detail ahead of an announcement to base staff on Wednesday but the MoD dismissed suggestions that the base was going to be mothballed or closed as “scaremongering”.
An Mod spokesperson said: “There are changes ahead but we plan to continuwe operations at the Hebrides for the foreseeable future.”
Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil said if the job losses were confirmed it would spell aa devastating and unforgivable blow by the Labour government to the islands.
“To lose 120 jobs in the islands would be like Ravenscraig for our community,” said Mr MacNeil. “The Uists are already a fragile economy. If the Labour government has any commitment at all to supporting island jobs and maintaining island populations, they must understand that. Large scale job losses in the Uists are not something this community could easily bear.”
The range has been an integral part of the Southern Isles economy since it was established, against initial local opposition, in 1958 as a rocket firing range.
It has been used to test and evaluate future weapons systems ranging from missiles to unmanned aerial vehicles or drones that are deployed with increasing frequency in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The military, which ran the base as RA Range Hebrides, regard it as unique facility because of there are relatively few constraints on firing from land to sea on the Atlantic coast and because the local population co-operate fully with the military to achieve its objectives.
A large part of the base is on land owned by the community-run company Storas Uibhist which warned that it could withdraw its support if the base was reduced to a skeleton staff with two or three bursts of activity during each year.
“They can’t pull out 120 jobs and think they can come and go as they please,” said Angus MacMillan, chairman of Storas Uibhist, that leases land free to the testing range. “That’s not going to happen, we could find a better use for the land.”
He added: “In the last 50 years the base has been able to operate because people have worked with the military - fishermen have stayed out of the firing line and crofters have kept their stock away when tests are being carried out.”
“The loss of so many skilled jobs will be traumatic for the families concerned and the community as a whole. It will put further pressure on the local economy that has suffered terribly in the recent economic crisis.'