26 September 2007

S3M-459 Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Alasdair Morgan): The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S3M-459, in the name of Mike Rumbles, on the Aberdeen western peripheral route.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with concern the pledge given in writing by the First Minister on 15 June 2007 to abide by the findings of the public inquiry into the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route (AWPR) and ensure that the project is not financed by PPP/PFI funding; further notes with concern reports that the Scottish Government will make no statement on its intended method of financing the AWPR until after the public inquiry is completed; expresses its concern at the year's delay for the estimated completion of the project that was announced in June 2007 by the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change; recognises the importance of the AWPR to the economy of the north east, and believes that clarification should be given as a matter of urgency on how the project will be financed.


... ... ...


The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): I thank members for their generous help in identifying the issues that I should address. I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight on the issues raised by the motion. However, I start by reiterating what I said to Parliament on 27 June:

"The Aberdeen western peripheral route is vital to the north-east and we are committed to its delivery."—[Official Report, 27 June 2007; c 1131.]

I am delighted that support remains broad based in Parliament and elsewhere, with the exception of the principled and consistent objections from Patrick Harvie. I understand where he is coming from. Richard Baker significantly understated the benefit of the road. It has a cost benefit ratio of in excess of 5:1. The benefit is well in excess of £1 billion, which is why the Government and others recognise the critical importance of the road to the north-east.

Lewis Macdonald: On 30 June 2007, Alex Salmond told the Aberdeen Evening Express:

"I can tell you that the bypass will definitely be built, subject to the public inquiry."

In light of what the minister has said about the SNP's commitment to the road, what does that qualifying phrase

"subject to the public inquiry"

really mean?

Stewart Stevenson: I will come back to planning issues a wee bit later.

I agreed with almost everything that Lewis Macdonald said. It made absolute sense. I only disagree with some of his conclusions.

On the subject of the timetable, it is bizarre to imagine that, when I inquired early in this Administration about where the project stood, I should have masochistically decided to postpone a project of such value to my constituents and to the constituents of other members. That is not what happened. I simply announced where the project was when I found it.

Mike Rumbles: That announcement came after Alex Salmond wrote to my constituent and to the Road Sense campaign. The minister took that decision once Alex Salmond had told him that the project could not proceed, so he should not give us that story.

Stewart Stevenson: I took no decision. I announced how the project was when I found it on taking office. I give the assurance that funding issues will not delay the project further. That is the important point.

We are making progress and have published draft compulsory purchase orders to take the project forward. There were 8,000 responses to the previous orders and there may be more to the new ones. That means a PLI, which will inevitably take time—time that should have been provided for in the schedule.

The inquiry will examine objections to the draft orders, hear evidence for and against the proposals and report to ministers. It is important that ministers carefully consider the implications of the inquiry's findings, which will be central to the way forward. Members know that it would not be proper for me to make any comment on the detail of planning decisions that will come before the Government.

I turn now to the funding vehicle for the scheme, which is at the core of Mr Rumbles's discontent. The previous Administration suggested PFI. In opposition and now in government, we have consistently stated that we want to examine a mechanism to deliver better, more efficient infrastructure for taxpayers than PFI can deliver. We have now started work on the Scottish futures trust initiative. At its core, it retains the essence of long-term funding and long-term repayment but at significantly lower interest rate costs. We will consult on the trust when we are ready to do so and publish information at that time. However, I can tell members that its purpose is to reduce the cost of borrowing and increase affordability so that, every year, we will have more money available for Scotland's priorities.

On PFI, it is passing strange that—of all people—it should be a member of the Liberal Democrats who lodges such a motion. I will gently read a few quotations to Mr Rumbles.

"Bonds are a perfectly good way of raising funds for capital investment. It does not have to be done through PFI."—[Official Report, House of Commons, 23 May 2007; Vol 460, c 1372.]

Those are the words of Norman Lamb, a Liberal MP.

Bob Russell, another Liberal Democrat MP, said of PFI contracts:

"They tend to end up costing the public purse more—mortgaging future generations with huge debts".—[Official Report, House of Commons, 25 July 2006; Vol 449, c 830.]

Matthew Taylor, speaking at the Lib Dems' conference when he was shadow chancellor, said:

"Liberal democrats oppose this dogma".

We will have no more of that dogma from Mr Rumbles.

Mike Rumbles: Has Stewart Stevenson heard of devolution?

Stewart Stevenson: I have heard of devolution and that is why we will do things differently. If Mr Rumbles disagrees with his Liberal colleagues, he should be honest about it—as I have been about the timetable that I inherited from a Liberal minister.

Mike Rumbles rose—

Stewart Stevenson: I have no more time.

Mr Rumbles suggests that we need to decide now on funding; actually, we have to decide about funding at the point at which we need it, and we will do that. The local inquiry is the important thing that we have to get through. It will consider the proposed routes and the compulsory purchase orders; it will not be about the funding mechanism.

We need a robust procurement strategy and good management of the project, but it is important that we keep our options open to deliver best value. In the meantime, we are trying to bring forward as much work as we can. On the northern section, we have people on the ground working on the project. We are making the acquisitions that will pave the way to support this vital road for Aberdeen. We are proceeding with the planning process. We are clearly underlining our commitment to getting on with the project practically and undogmatically.

The benefits that the scheme will bring to Aberdeen and the north-east are considerable. It will represent a highly significant and important investment in the area by the Scottish Government. Decisions on procurement of such a large investment will be taken at the appropriate time. We continue to take steps to ensure that the project delivers best value for the Scottish taxpayer.

Meeting closed at 18.04.

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