15 January 2009

S3M-3214 Forth Crossing

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 15 January 2009

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

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Forth Crossing

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-3214, in the name of John Swinney, on the Forth road crossing. ... ... ...
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The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

Let me treat this somewhat didactically for the hard of hearing and the hard of heeding. I will talk about policy, finance and the capability of the new crossing. I hope that I will have time to respond to as many members as I can.

The policy has not changed: it is to have multimodal capability between Edinburgh and Fife. What has changed is the implementation of the policy in the light of the innovative and exciting work that is being done by the professional engineers in Transport Scotland. It is an implementation that will deliver a huge financial benefit and simultaneously open up for future Administrations further capacity options, if they so choose. This Administration's option is to deliver a replacement for the capacity of the bridge that was opened in 1964, but the design gives us the opportunity—in particular in relation to public transport—to increase capacity and reliability and to deliver the kind of public transport intervention, particularly for buses, that we have not seen for a generation.

Patrick Harvie: The minister has implied—I think that I am right in saying that it is on the record for the first time—that under his scheme future Administrations will have the choice of increasing road capacity between the two Forth crossings by using the existing crossing. If his climate change targets mean anything at all, surely he needs a system in place to prevent that from happening. Will he guarantee that the SNP would never support such a scheme? How will he prevent future Administrations from doing so?

Stewart Stevenson: I am sure that the member will have read the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill, so he will know that it provides for predictions as to how much carbon we must eliminate from our economy. That is precisely the handcuff on future policy making in a range of areas that the member might care to look at.

On the subject of finance, I say to everyone: the bridge is safe, the finance is safe and the finance is known. For those who are hard of hearing, I say more loudly: the bridge is safe, the finance is safe and we know where we are going. Finally, for the hard of heeding: the bridge is safe, the funding is safe and we know where it is coming from. It is coming from the Government.

Jeremy Purvis: Will the minister take an intervention?

Murdo Fraser rose—

Stewart Stevenson: Mr Purvis first.

Jeremy Purvis: I am grateful to the minister for giving way. On the reduction in the cost estimates for the current Government's solution, what proportion of that reduction is owing to the funding mechanism that it has now opted for?

Stewart Stevenson: Choosing a funding mechanism that comes from our own resources is clearly the best value for money. That is a significant change from using mechanisms such as a lease and a shadow toll, or PPP. The funding mechanism that we have selected means that there is a significant change in the price. Now, does Mr Fraser wish to—

Jeremy Purvis: On a point of order, Presiding Officer. My point of order is relevant to the Presiding Officer's statement earlier today. In this debate, not only the cabinet secretary—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: No, sorry. I will not take a point of debate dressed up as a point of order. Can you sit down, please?

Jeremy Purvis: May you hear the point of order first, Presiding Officer, before you rule on it?

The Deputy Presiding Officer: You can make the point of order at the end of the debate, or you can write to me and we will adjudicate on it. I am not taking the point of order just now. We will conclude the debate.

Mike Rumbles (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Standing orders do say—there is no question about it—that, if a point of order is raised, it must be heard and proceedings must stop.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Mr Rumbles, if you look at standing orders, you will see that points of order should not be on the subject under debate and that they must be points of order and not points of debate. I call Murdo Fraser.

Murdo Fraser: Thank you, Presiding Officer. Perhaps we could return to the subject of the debate. I want to put to the minister an important point that has not yet been addressed by a minister during the debate. Why was there such a delay in ministers' seeking Treasury approval? Why was approval sought only 14 days before the announcement that was made in December? Was that due to incompetence or was there another, more sinister reason for it?

Stewart Stevenson: Within a very short time of Cabinet's concluding the shape of this project, we approached the Treasury. That was the right time to do it and the right way to do it.

I very much welcome the open approach that I think is being taken by the Treasury. We expect to have fruitful and useful discussions when Mr Swinney and I meet the Treasury team in the next few weeks.

I turn to the capability of the bridge. First, the bridge provides replacement capacity for freight vehicles and the private car—two lanes in each direction. However, we will enhance the weather proofing compared to the existing bridge. On the Severn, the modern bridge hardly ever closes—it probably never closes—in comparison with the old bridge. We will see the same on the Forth.

Similarly, the provision of a hard shoulder means that breakdowns and accidents will interfere less with the operation of the bridge.

Helen Eadie: I asked about European funding, but the minister did not respond to that in his remarks on funding.

Stewart Stevenson: We explored that without success.

I return to capability. The old bridge was built with a 120-year life. That lifespan was predicated on a number of things: first, that we would not have corrosion in the cables; and secondly, that we would have a much lower utilisation than we have currently. It is interesting that those responsible for the Severn crossing responded early to the design capacity point being reached; they have similar utilisation on two bridges across the Severn.

Today, we are faced with a bridge that is approaching the safety point and which is continuing to deteriorate simply through use. The kind of vehicles that are carried on the bridge are very different from the vehicles that were carried on it when it first opened.

In the limited time available, I will try to respond to members' points. I very much welcomed Derek Brownlee's acceptance of the funding model that we have adopted. That is useful and sensible.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. There are far too many conversations going on.

Stewart Stevenson: Marilyn Livingstone got to the nub of it when she said that the case is made for a new crossing. The multimodal capability is there.

George Foulkes conflated funding and project management. The problem with the Parliament was not the funding mechanism but the project management. He raised the issue of local authority borrowing. The difficulty is that, under the adoption of international financial reporting standards, that would have to be on the balance sheet of local authorities at the outset—exactly the same problem as PFI and exactly the same problem with borrowing.

Murdo Fraser quoted Churchill, who, I think, also said:

"Prediction is difficult, especially for the future."

That is certainly true of the deterioration of the bridge, but we cannot take a gamble that things will magically come right.

I say to Margaret Smith that we have been advertising this week in The Scotsman, the Metro and other papers the substantial engagement that there will be with communities.

Even Patrick Harvie said that a road crossing remains an important part of our transport infrastructure. I thought that that was important and interesting.

Chris Harvie suggested that a barter approach might be of value. That is very interesting, but perhaps we will not look at that immediately.

In 1935, my great-uncle was the chairman of the campaign committee for the Forth road bridge. He anticipated that 6,000 vehicles a day would cross the bridge. Today, we have 11 times that number crossing the bridge. The world has changed since 1935—and since 1964. I commend the motion in my colleague's name to the Parliament.


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