Ian Swanson: Forum’s closed-door policy a bridge too far

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THE invitation to help choose the name of the new Forth road bridge seems to have caught the public imagination. Despite what some have labelled a “boring” list of options, more than 20,000 votes have been cast within days of the shortlist being unveiled.

Transport Minister Keith Brown has hailed the response as “phenomenal”.

But ironically, choosing the name of the crossing looks like being the last involvement the public or their elected local representatives will have in any decisions on the £1.6 billion project.

Once the new crossing is completed, both it and the current road bridge will be handed over to a private contractor to manage and maintain.

The Scottish Government will own both structures and ministers will theoretically be answerable to the Scottish Parliament for them. But the arrangement, dating back to the opening of the Forth Road Bridge in 1964, which saw a joint board of councillors from either side of the river looking after it is being swept away.

A new Forth Bridges Forum – purely advisory – has been set up, which will include representatives from Transport Scotland, Network Rail, Historic Scotland and officials from Edinburgh, Fife and West Lothian councils, but elected representatives are excluded.

The forum will hold its meetings in private and is not expected to publish its agendas, reports or minutes.

So instead of regular updates on the state of the bridge, what maintenance is required and plans for future roadworks being routinely available from the minutes of the Forth Estuary Transport Authority, the new private operators and the Scottish Government will have no obligation to tell anyone what’s going on.

It’s interesting to speculate whether the discovery in 2004 of corrosion in the bridge’s main cables – which prompted the decision to build the new crossing – would have been made public when it was if it had been up to a private contractor and the government to decide.

It could be argued the new crossing might not be under construction now if everything was dealt with behind closed doors.

Edinburgh City Council has made a strong case that the bridges are of such significance to the Capital in terms of traffic, the economy and tourism that it is just common sense for an elected member to be included in the forum – and that’s quite apart from the need to represent the interests of the Queensferry community.

The Transport Minister’s claim that having councillors discussing issues for which they are not ultimately responsible would “muddy the waters” is less than convincing, given the plethora of outside bodies on which councillors regularly sit.

Mr Brown seeks to allay any concern about a gap in democratic accountability by insisting that councillors and members of the public are welcome to make representations to him and that Transport Scotland officials stand ready to make presentations to councils if they have a particular issue of concern.

And the new contractor will be required to maintain a prescribed level of contact with local community groups. But community leaders have already voiced concerns that the profit motive, which inevitably enters the equation with a private contractor, will affect the good relations which have been built up.

The government has been criticised for its centralising tendency, taking powers away from councils and local areas. Refusing to allow councillors even to sit on an advisory body is a gap too far.