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15 November 2007

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

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