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]
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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.

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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.


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