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15 November 2007

S3M-780 Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1 [Closing Speech]

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 15 November 2007

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]
... ... ...
Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-780, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, that the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill.

14:56
... ... ...
16:49

Stewart Stevenson: That was a model example, from my dear friend Charlie Gordon, of how to sook up to the Presiding Officer. I hope that all members take note of his example and, whoever may be in the chair, copy it.

When I opened the debate, I said that the Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill was based on equity. The dictionary definition of equity is

"the spirit of justice which enables us to interpret laws rightly".

The bill will provide justice for the people of Fife, in particular, and for all other users of the Forth and Tay road bridges by giving them free access to Scotland's road network, the same as everyone else on every other road in Scotland. I am delighted that all but one of the members who spoke in the debate clearly support that principle. In doing so, they reflect the views of a great many travellers, bridge users and businesses in the east of Scotland.

I understand that concerns exist about the impacts that the removal of tolls might have; I commented on some of them in my opening remarks and I will make further comments on them in closing. However, I repeat that we are debating the principle of what Charlie Gordon described as a dirty little bill, but what I describe as a simple bill with simple ends, which are to remove the bridge tolls as soon as practicable; to remove an artificial deadline for the repayment of the Tay bridge loans; and to remove redundant Erskine bridge legislation from the statute books.

Patrick Harvie referred to the results of the model that was used in the toll impact study as "findings of fact". We should be slightly cautious about that, because the model is not intrinsically a matter of fact; it is an assessment that is based on a wide range of assumptions, any one of which if changed could lead to different outcomes. The model is the best available assessment, but it probably is not fact, so we must be careful in interpreting it.

Patrick Harvie's attempt to remove equity from Scotland's political life will have puzzled many members. If equity is removed from the political debate on transport or on a wide range of other policy matters, frankly, we are left with little but the mechanistic assessment of what we should do. I do not support that.

Patrick Harvie: To reinforce my point, I was certainly not arguing that equity should not exist in public policy making, but that, at present, the Government's strategic transport objectives do not include it and that if we included equity as a transport objective, we would look for the greatest inequity and we would not find car drivers.

Stewart Stevenson: Continuing with other members, Iain Smith must read the budget document more carefully. The £10.7 million in 2010-11 to which he referred is of course capital provision, not revenue provision—that provision amounts to £13 million each year for tolls and appears elsewhere in the budget. He will find an extremely generous provision for the boards, which in the immediate year ahead is mainly for dehumidification and replacement of joints on the Forth bridge and for bearings on the Tay bridge.

Iain Smith: Will the minister take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: I am sorry, but I am running out of time.

One surprising point that Liberal members raised—Alison McInnes and Iain Smith mentioned it—was on their desire to remove local input to the management of the bridges by abolishing the boards for the Tay and Forth road bridges.

Iain Smith seemed to suggest that putting the Gogar station, rather than an Edinburgh airport station, on the railway line from Fife would somehow have a negative effect. The reality is that we can deliver the Gogar station sooner, more quickly and more cheaply and, because it will not be below ground, the stopping time at the station will be less than it would have been under the proposals for the Edinburgh airport rail link. We are increasing capacity as well. That is a positive approach.

Alex Johnstone took a different view on the bridge boards and asked whether their independence will be maintained. We are doing nothing that will affect the boards' independence. I have given that assurance to the boards' members. They make a valuable contribution and I want them to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Alison McInnes commented that, somehow, the bill will threaten successful public transport schemes. She gave no examples, so I am not entirely sure what she was referring to, although later she talked about Ferrytoll park and ride. We support the Ferrytoll park and ride, which will be expanded, as a vital part of multimodality in transport infrastructure north of the bridge. Indeed, when we came to office, we discovered a substantial number of proposals for park-and-ride schemes around central Scotland on which no progress appeared to have been made. One of the challenges for me—I will rise to it and seek to engage with it—is to make more park and rides work. We will do so, of course, through local interests. Peak-time congestion on the bridge will be unchanged, so there will be no difference for buses or for anything else.

Joe FitzPatrick made some interesting comments. As he highlighted, it is proper to say that much of the groundwork on which the bill is founded was started by the previous Administration. We welcome that. That groundwork has accelerated the pace at which we were able to introduce the bill.

Helen Eadie was gracious in her remarks. Once again, I congratulate her on her persistence on the issue. She said that she will always welcome the SNP keeping a manifesto commitment. I very much look forward to her voting for the referendum bill and supporting a local income tax—both of which are key commitments on which we seek to move forward.

To Jim Tolson, I say that the climate change bill is moving forward at a tremendous pace. We are also working with the UK Government on its bill.

Marilyn Livingstone hinted at increased rail costs. It is worth saying to her that we inherited the current pattern of rail costs, but we are looking at how things might be in the future. On ferry and hovercraft support, we have yet to receive a proposal. We will assess any such proposal when we get it.

John Park again—quite properly—returned to the issue of the bridge staff. Of course I see a role for organised labour. Early in my period in office, I spoke to the Highland and Islands conference of the Scottish Trades Union Congress and I will continue to engage with representatives of organised labour. The approach—

The Presiding Officer: Order. There is too much background noise.

Stewart Stevenson: In relation to the bridge staff, the approach that we have made has been via the bridge boards. I hope that we will get a response shortly and I stand ready to speak to the staff.

I want to repeat something in case, in my enthusiasm earlier, I miscued it. The amount of money that we announced for bus and rail is two threes followed by eight zeros—£3,300,000,000—so I hope that I have made that point absolutely clear.

Alison McInnes: Will the minister give way?

Stewart Stevenson: I am sorry, but I am coming to the end of my speech.

The benefits of the bill are clear and others share that clarity. David Chalmers, of the Federation of Small Businesses in Fife, has said that it is nice to see that we are reaching a point at which we can say that the tolls are definitely coming off. Businesses across Scotland will benefit from having no tolls. Alan Russell, of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, stated:

"The tolls are a restraint on trade."—[Official Report, Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, 25 September 2007; c 129.]

I offer my thanks, in addition to those that others have given, to members for contributing to the debate on the first bill that the SNP Government has introduced to the Parliament. In particular, I am grateful to the members of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee. I hope that I have answered many of their questions and I look forward to continuing the dialogue.

Finally, I publicly thank the members and officials of both FETA and the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board. I have met representatives of the boards and my officials continue to work with them. Charlie suggested that my post had perhaps been made hereditary—

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): Charlie who, minister? We are not on first-name terms in the chamber.

Stewart Stevenson: I beg your pardon, Presiding Officer.

The member on the benches opposite referred to my post as possibly being hereditary. I wonder what my late great-uncle, Alexander Stewart Stevenson, would think of our deliberations today. As the person who chaired the Road Bridge Promotion Committee in the 1930s, I suspect that he would join many people in eastern Scotland in quiet satisfaction.

Following today's debate, I am hopeful that the bill can proceed quickly and safely. I thank members for their contributions.

17:00

S3M-780 Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1 [Opening Speech]

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 15 November 2007

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]
... ... ...
Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-780, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, that the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill.

14:56

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): When I opened the debate on bridge tolls on 31 May, I said that I did so with some satisfaction. I hope that I will be allowed some satisfaction in opening the stage 1 debate on the Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill, which was the first bill to be introduced by this Government.

We have been committed to ending bridge tolls for a very long time. During the previous parliamentary session, my colleagues Shona Robison and Tricia Marwick both led debates that sought to end bridge tolls, and Bruce Crawford has just reminded me that he proposed a member's bill on the subject. Many members have supported such calls in the past and I am happy once again to single out Helen Eadie in that regard. Her draft bill to abolish bridge tolls remains poised for introduction, if we look likely to backtrack on our manifesto commitment, although I assure members that we will not backtrack. In May, members voted overwhelmingly to support the abolition of tolls. The bill will remove, with transparency and certainty, the right to demand tolls and, crucially, it will do so as soon as is practicable.

The bill is short and simple and aims to do just three things: remove the ability to charge and collect tolls on the Forth and Tay road bridges; remove a legislative deadline for the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board to repay all its debts by 2016; and repeal obsolete legislation relating to the Erskine bridge. If Parliament agrees to the bill, we will end an injustice to the people of Fife, Tayside and the Lothians, and to all who have had to pay tolls on the Forth and Tay road bridges when tolls have been removed elsewhere. That is the principle on which the bill is based, and it is the principle on which we will be voting today.

The Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee has published its stage 1 report on the bill, and I am pleased that the majority of the committee's members have endorsed the bill. I regret that Patrick Harvie has dissented from that view. He abstained on the motion that was debated in May, and I understand that he has continuing concerns about the potential environmental impacts of removing the tolls, such as congestion. Of course, I recognise and respect his long-held position. I share the view that we cannot encourage an unchecked rise in traffic on our roads, but it is not the aim of the Government to punish car users and it is certainly not its aim to punish Fife car users alone.

Margaret Smith (Edinburgh West) (LD): Given that the suggestions for increases in road traffic vary from 10 to 21 per cent and that Transport Scotland's preferred option for a further Forth crossing is a unimodal rather than a multimodal bridge, will the minister reassure members and my constituents that the Government takes increased road traffic seriously and that it will do everything that it can to provide the necessary funding and support to put public transport options in place to deal with the traffic increases that will affect my constituents in west Edinburgh?

Stewart Stevenson: I will return to the subject of west Edinburgh and I am sure that the member will be comfortable with what I say.

I return to responding to Patrick Harvie. We believe that the carrot is more powerful than the stick and that we should persuade people by offering a wide range of public transport options. That is why the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth announced £3.3 million—I mean £3,300 million; I just cut the figure a thousandfold, but I reinstated it almost instantly—for rail and bus yesterday. That is also why park-and-ride facilities remain an important part of our strategy. More people can be persuaded on to trains and buses than can be bullied out of cars.

Let us remind ourselves that tolls on the two bridges were introduced so that bridge users contributed to the cost of construction. In a report on a public meeting in Bo'ness, The Scotsman said:

"The Government would stop the charging of tolls after the capital expenditure on the bridge had been cleared."

That argument is not new; it was made in February 1935. The chair at that public meeting of the Road Bridge Promotion Committee was Alexander Stewart Stevenson, my great-uncle.

Today's tolls were not introduced to restrain traffic and were not introduced for all eternity. Enough is enough.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green): Perhaps I begin to understand the minister's convictions on the issue: they are a matter not of transport policy, but of family loyalty.

Does the minister accept that, at the time to which he referred and for many decades after that, the level of traffic and the weight of heavy goods vehicles that went over the Forth road bridge were not and were never expected to be what they are now? We face a genuinely new situation, which is why tolls—a demand-management mechanism—can serve a new purpose. Is that not the case?

Stewart Stevenson: It is interesting that the committee that my great-uncle chaired predicted that 6,000 vehicles per day would cross the bridge, as against the 66,000 per day that cross today. Pro rata, 6,000 was a bigger share of the overall traffic in 1935 than 66,000 is of the traffic today.

The Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee asked for information on several issues. I have written to the convener to address the points in detail, but I will touch on one or two issues that have been raised—particularly those that relate to the motion that the Parliament passed on the abolition of tolls in May.

The committee was concerned that we had not consulted on the bill, but very thorough discussion and consultation have taken place over a long period on the principle of abolishing bridge tolls. That consultation and the research study that followed it were unusually thorough. They involved MSPs and substantial numbers of individuals, companies and private and public sector organisations.

The committee acknowledged that the Government is committed to funding the removal of the tollbooths on the Tay road bridge and a new road layout at the Forth road bridge in place of the toll plaza there. The details are matters for the bridge boards as roads authorities, but my officials will help to ensure that safe traffic management arrangements are provided at both bridges when tolls are removed.

The committee has pressed me on the effects on bridge staff. I assure members that I take seriously the impact of our proposals on bridge staff. I have paid tribute to their expertise and understand that this has been a particularly difficult and uncertain time for some of them. I have had no wish to complicate the important and detailed work that has been going on to develop and agree staffing policies that respond to the new situation. Decisions on such issues are a matter for the employers—the Forth Estuary Transport Authority and the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board—but I understand that the Government has a role to play in explaining our thinking behind the bill and reassuring staff about their positions. With that in mind, my officials have contacted local representatives of bridge staff to offer a meeting at an early date if they would find such a meeting useful. In addition, I understand that discussions between employers and employees are reaching a conclusion, which is the right time for me to hear from those who have made such a substantial contribution to the safety and operation of the bridges as to how we may preserve the investment that they have made.

The amendment to the motion that we debated in May sought details on finance and costs. We want to remove the power to charge and collect tolls, and the Government has given an assurance to each of the bridge boards that we will replace the toll income with direct grants. We are discussing appropriate agreements with them. The current toll income of some £13 million will be replaced. We, rather than bridge users, will provide that money. A clear announcement in yesterday's spending review backed that up.

Iain Smith (North East Fife) (LD): A number of different figures appear in the financial memorandum to the bill and the letter that the minister has just sent to the committee. The net toll income for 2009-10 has been given as £13.167 million once the costs of collecting the tolls have been deducted, but there is a budget of only £10.7 million for 2010-11 for the bridge authorities. It does not strike me that the net toll income will be replaced if £3 million less will be provided. Will the minister clarify the figures, as they are a little confusing?

Stewart Stevenson: There is an overall provision of £87 million, which of course includes money for paying off the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board's debts and some of the effects of removing the tolls. The member should be assured that we have made the provision that we are required to make.

I turn to west Edinburgh. We have made major announcements on train services, including on a new station at Gogar, and we are working with all stakeholders to examine issues relating to the west Edinburgh planning framework area. Further detailed analysis of transport aspects will be reported next year.

Finally, I return to the principle that we are debating today. The bill is about equity and fairness. It will remove a barrier to travel, employment, education, leisure and trade. In doing so, it will help us to achieve our strategic objective of building a wealthier and fairer Scotland. The people who must cross the bridges for health or educational reasons or to visit their friends or families should not pay additional taxes for that privilege. They should be treated equitably. The committee's stage 1 report stated:

"The majority of the Committee is of the view that this is a persuasive argument and it therefore agrees that for this reason alone the continuation of tolls on the Forth Road Bridge and Tay Road Bridge is no longer justified."

I commend that conclusion to the Parliament.

I am happy to move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Abolition of Bridge Tolls (Scotland) Bill.

15:08

1 November 2007

S3M-568 Crown Estate (Taxation on Harbour Developments)

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 1 November 2007

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

... ... ...
Crown Estate (Taxation on Harbour Developments)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Alasdair Morgan): The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-568, in the name of Tavish Scott, on Crown Estate taxation on harbour developments. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the vital importance to island and coastal communities of their ports and harbours which serve lifeline transport links and, by supporting such industries as fishing, aquaculture, offshore oil, tourism and renewable energy, provide major employment opportunities; further notes that ports and harbours in the Highlands and Islands are largely owned by local authorities, trusts or other public bodies that operate for the benefit of the communities they serve and reinvest any profits in these communities; views with concern the charges such ports and harbour owners have to pay to the Crown Estate for the rental of areas of seabed; further views with concern the royalty charges imposed by the Crown Estate when material dredged from the seabed to assist navigation is used productively by harbour owners for land reclamation rather than being wastefully dumped at sea, and believes that serious consideration should be given as to how the Parliament's powers to legislate over the property rights of the Crown in Scotland, as outlined in the December 2006 report of the Crown Estate Review Working Group, could be used to lift this unjustifiable burden of Crown Estate taxation from ports and harbour operators.

17:03
... ... ...

17:27

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): This evening's debate has provided a welcome and well-timed opportunity to discuss an issue that I know Tavish Scott took a keen interest in when he was the Minister for Transport. He mentioned Telford, who built harbours; I remind him that it took a Stevenson to build the lighthouses.

I am highly appreciative of the speeches that have been made by the other participants in the debate—I listened to those of Liam McArthur and Alasdair Allan, as island representatives, with particular interest because the island communities are most affected by imperfections in ports and harbours. I share the interest in harbours, which play an important role in my constituency, just as they do for island communities.

The debate is well timed because, as members know, the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee is examining the role of the Crown Estate in Scotland and, in particular, the recent report of the Crown Estate review working group. As part of that work, it heard from the Crown Estate on 24 October. On behalf of the Government, I welcome the committee's interest, which allows the views of all parties, including the Crown Estate, to be aired and placed in the public domain and—importantly—enables Parliament to fully debate the issues. The Government will consider carefully the outcome of the committee's deliberations and what members have said in tonight's debate. We await that outcome with interest, especially given the wide range of evidence and views that have already been presented to the committee.

I am aware of the view that is held widely in parts of the Highlands and Islands and in other parts of rural Scotland that, as a landlord, the Crown Estate raises significant amounts of rental income from the seabed in particular, but offers very little benefit to the people of Scotland and the communities from which that income is derived. Many of those communities have few other assets that can deliver the regular income stream that the seabed provides.

There is a broad grouping of local authorities that believe that the Crown Estate charges rents that are too high and that it fails to invest enough in marine infrastructure, such as harbours. I am also aware that some—although by no means all—members of the port sector believe that the Crown Estate takes from Scotland, but does not give back, with the money simply going to the Treasury. I certainly sympathise, to a degree, with those views.

The Scottish Government is already engaging positively with the Crown Estate on a range of marine developments. I hope that that addresses the wish that Liam McArthur expressed in his speech.

Tavish Scott: I take the point that the minister makes about lighthouses—in the coming weeks I will look more closely at those in my constituency.

The minister referred to the Government's work with the Crown Estate. Is he able tonight to say how he views that fact that although, as a landlord, the Crown Estate takes charges for its ownership of the seabed, it now wishes to invest in port facilities at one port, but possibly not at others?

Stewart Stevenson: It is important to encourage the Crown Estate to recycle the money into investment in our ports. The Official Report of the meeting of the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee of 24 October suggests—I base my comments on that source only—that there may be substantial investment in Lerwick, to take forward that port's interests. If the money were always to be returned to each port when it was raised, it would not make a substantial contribution to major projects. We should consider the approach that I have outlined: over the piece and over the calendar ports should be dealt with equitably. The bottom line is that we want more investment in our ports and harbours, and we want the Crown Estate to pay a significant role in that.

Jamie McGrigor: I take the points that the minister makes. The Crown Estate commissioners to whom I spoke made clear that they are open to applications for funding for projects, but that such applications have not been made. However, they are pursuing a number of projects, which is most encouraging for the future.

Stewart Stevenson: That is a useful observation. I suspect that at least three or four members in the chamber will encourage people to come forward with projects. I hope that the Crown Estate will respond positively to those, because harbours and ports are vital parts of many fragile local economies. When it comes to lifeline services, harbours are as important as ships and crews are.

The Crown Estate has expressed willingness to work collaboratively with us for the benefit of the Scottish marine estate, albeit that it operates within guidelines that the Treasury has set for it. Those guidelines include the stipulation that it must make a financial return on its estate.

The Crown Estate has made some progress as a partner in the development of infrastructure for renewable energy. At the end of the day, the basic legal position is clear: management of the Crown Estate is reserved to Westminster. However, the Scottish Parliament may legislate on devolved matters such as planning and the environment—planning is my responsibility, whereas the environment is the responsibility of my colleague Mr Russell—that affect the Crown Estate's activities in Scotland. The deliberations of the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee on the subject will be very relevant to our considerations.

I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight in the chamber the important role of ports and harbours. We place great importance on the port sector's economic contribution locally and nationally. Ports contribute to the health of our economy, not just by providing employment opportunities but indirectly, through related services. They make possible connections with Scotland's dispersed and remote communities, as well as with the international world, creating new business opportunities and links; I refer to the proposals for Scapa Flow. Efficient transport of goods and passengers, supporting Scotland's fishermen, the seafood industries, the energy sector and tourism, and regenerating and supporting local areas and communities are all part of the essential and economically significant role that our ports play.

The Scottish Government will do all that it can to support a constructive relationship with the Crown Estate as we move forward, but I say to Mr Scott that, if necessary, we will rock the boat. My colleague the Minister for Environment will have primary responsibility for developing our relationship with the Crown Estate, but I will work with him in relation to ports and harbours.

I thank Tavish Scott for securing this useful debate, which is an important contribution to where we will go from here.

Meeting closed at 17:35.

Stewart Stevenson
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