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31 May 2007

S3M-93 Bridge Tolls

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 31 May 2007

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]
… … …
Bridge Tolls

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Alasdair Morgan): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-93, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, on the abolition of bridge tolls.

15:00

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): It is with understandable satisfaction that I open this debate on transport issues and that I will move a motion to abolish road bridge tolls in Fife—a topic on which the Scottish National Party has taken a consistent and vociferous line.

The Government's view is that tolls for users of the Forth and Tay road bridges should have been abolished when tolls were lifted from the Erskine bridge in March 2006 but, in any event, the abolition will eliminate 40 years of injustice that stems from the original decision to charge tolls when the crossings opened for business in the 1960s.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con): Will the minister give way?

Stewart Stevenson: Wait a little bit, please.

In our first two weeks in government, we have delivered the first steps for one of our manifesto commitments—two weeks to overturn 40 years of injustice. In those two weeks, we have seen how minority government delivers. Opposition parties have recognised the political reality of our manifesto commitment and, more important, the political necessity of changing their position and supporting the people of Fife. Not a bad first two weeks, then—a manifesto commitment delivered and a parliamentary near-consensus built for action.

Murdo Fraser: I will break into the self-congratulation for just a second. I take it from the minister's tone that the Executive opposes tolls in principle. Does he therefore rule out any tolling for a new Forth crossing?

Stewart Stevenson: I ask the member to allow me to develop my points. I will talk later about the replacement Forth crossing, which we urgently require. If Mr Fraser is very good, I may even have some generous words for him.

I acknowledge the difficulties that our Green colleagues derive from the abolition of tolls. I hope that they will see merit in matters that I will talk about later.

Parliament has debated tolls before. My colleagues Shona Robison, in March 2006, and Tricia Marwick, in February 2007, highlighted the inequity to the Parliament and I congratulate them on their contributions. I will quote Tricia Marwick's opening statement last February, as it still applies today.

"The debate is about fairness. Scotland has nearly 30 road crossings of tidal waters, but only two are tolled and both are in Fife. Why does no other part of Scotland have any tolls when we in Fife have two?"—[Official Report, 8 February 2007; c 31888.]

That encapsulates today's debate.

Other parties and individuals supported us in the previous debates and I gratefully acknowledge the support from the Conservatives—in particular from Mr Murdo Fraser—and from Labour and Liberal Democrat members who spoke and voted with us. I acknowledge the work of Helen Eadie, who has lodged a draft proposal for a bill to abolish tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges. Given the way in which we are moving, she may wish to withdraw that proposal following today's debate.

Fife has asked Parliament to provide that area with unhindered economic opportunities for employment and socially necessary trips to Dundee and Edinburgh. The Government, often in partnership with others, such as the south-east Scotland transport partnership, will do exactly that. It is vital that a number of transport initiatives in the cross-Forth area are progressed more actively.

Executive officials have received the SESTRAN regional transport strategy and the associated delivery plan, which are transport proposals for the region for the next 15 years. I will be interested in examining those proposals shortly, but I will spell out one or two of the initiatives. They include expansion of the existing park-and-ride facilities on the A8 at Ingliston and outline proposals for enhancements to park-and-ride facilities in Fife, at Rosyth and Halbeath.

Jeremy Purvis (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) (LD): Given that the proposal to expand the park-and-ride facilities at Ingliston is connected to the Edinburgh tram scheme, will it form part of the minister's consideration of developing that scheme?

Stewart Stevenson: I will not make arbitrary decisions at this point. The member will recognise that I recognise the validity of what he has said and the need to take account of it. We are enthusiastic about park-and-ride facilities and we want more of them, such as those that are being planned at Lothianburn, Straiton and Sheriffhall on the Edinburgh bypass.

SESTRAN is, on its own initiative, also considering the potential for a third, priority, lane on the A90/M90 to the north of the Forth between Halbeath and the Forth road bridge, and associated traffic management measures. The priority lane would be for high-occupancy vehicles. I want to consider that interesting proposal further.

Transport Scotland is actively working with SESTRAN to consider the potential benefits.

Marilyn Livingstone (Kirkcaldy) (Lab): Following the First Minister's comments on the tram project during First Minister's question time, will the minister give an assurance that before he takes any view on the tram project, he will take serious account of the adverse impact that a decision to cancel the project would have on the proposed cross-Forth ferry from my constituency?

Stewart Stevenson: We should make informed rather than arbitrary decisions, which is why I want full information on the major projects in my portfolio. I am not trying to alarm the member—I hope that I am indicating that I will take what she has said very seriously.

Margo MacDonald (Lothians) (Ind): I want to ask a question that arises from what the minister said in response to Marilyn Livingstone's question. Can we take it that the commitment to ditch or trash the Edinburgh trams, which was made during the election campaign, was made in an arbitrary fashion without the information that the minister now needs before he can take a decision?

Stewart Stevenson: Like all parties, the Scottish National Party laid its manifesto in front of Scotland's electorate in a highly considered fashion. However, this is a Parliament of minorities. We recognise that, and we will respond to that question when we discuss the subject.

Time is moving on more rapidly than I thought it would, so I will now deal with the current arrangements. The Forth Estuary Transport Authority has a wide remit that includes developing, supporting and funding schemes and measures that it considers to be appropriate to reduce traffic congestion on the bridge, to improve local transport infrastructure or to encourage an increase in the use of public transport. As part of its wider remit, FETA has, among other things, agreed to part fund the offline dual carriageway upgrading of the M9 spur/A8000 as its priority congestion-reducing transport scheme. It has also contributed to the extension of the Ferrytoll park-and-ride site and to the replacement of a railway bridge deck at Ferrytoll, on the Rosyth link road. Both schemes encourage modal shift.

The Forth Road Bridge Order Confirmation Act 1947, the Forth Road Bridge Order Confirmation Act 1958 and the Forth Road Bridge Order Confirmation Act 1961 is the main enabling legislation and provides that the joint board shall demand, take and recover tolls as set out in an approved schedule of tolls. That is an important point: it is not considered legally sound simply to attempt to amend the various orders for tolling on the Forth road bridge.

The Executive is moving to remove the tolls from the Forth and Tay bridges, but we need to discuss matters fully with the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board and FETA as soon as board members are appointed, following the recent local elections. I pay tribute to both organisations and their staff, who have operated the bridges with considerable skill and expertise for a number of years. We are aware of the 150 staff who work on the two bridges and of the complexity of their work for the continuity of bridge maintenance and the safety of users. We need to consider any impact on those staff. I do not wish to pre-empt the impact of lifting the tolls without having the opportunity to discuss the issues with the two new boards.

We intend that the legislation that we will introduce in September will remove the tolls on both bridges. We will discuss with FETA and the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board the simplest method of removing the tolls and managing the maintenance of the bridges. We expect those bodies to remain as road and traffic authorities and to retain responsibility for maintaining the structures.

The financial cost to the Executive—both capital and current—of removing the bridge tolls will be considered fully in the forthcoming spending review. I have been advised that the total current toll income for the two bridges is estimated to be between £15 million and £16 million per year. In effect, the income from tolls will be replaced by the same income, but it will now come from the Government and not from the residents and businesses of Fife and its surrounding area. We also intend to take on to our books the £15 million or so that is outstanding in capital debt on the Tay bridge.

This Administration is committed to removing unjust tolls to help Fife's economy expand and we will seek Parliament's assistance to ensure that that happens. I have very great pleasure in moving the motion.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises the concerns of residents and businesses who have been unfairly treated by the retention of tolls on the Forth and Tay road bridges when similar tolls were removed elsewhere; and that in the interests of fairness supports the removal of the tolls from the Forth and Tay road bridges as soon as is practicable and notes the government's intention to engage in dialogue to pursue this objective with the Forth Estuary Transport Authority and the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board.

15:12

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