A MAJOR contract for the construction of the new £1.5 billion Forth road bridge is poised to be handed to a German firm rather than a Scottish business.
Industry sources and politicians claim that the deal to supply cement for the new crossing is about to be handed to Hochtief, one of the largest construction firms in the world, under EU rules.
The decision comes even though Scotland’s only cement manufacturer, Dunbar-based Lafarge, has also bid for the contract, which it is claimed will help maintain more than 130 jobs in the area.
Former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, in whose East Lothian seat Lafarge is based, said last night that if the firm did lose out, claims by SNP ministers that its capital investment was helping sustain the Scottish economy would be shown to be a “bad joke”.
Backers argue that a decision to hand the contract to a German firm would make no sense, as it would entail shipping cement in across the North Sea, rather than a 40-mile journey by rail if Lafarge wins.
Transport Scotland said last night that no decision had been made, but the claims come days after it emerged that a £790 million contract for 37,000 tonnes of steel in the bridge has been awarded to Chinese, Polish and Spanish firms.
Not a single Scottish firm bid for the contract, prompting a furious response from opposition parties who asked why multi-million-pound deals on the most prestigious project for a generation in Scotland are disappearing out of the country.
But Transport Scotland argues that the rigorous procurement process it has set up could save taxpayers nearly £1bn compared with initial estimates on the cost of the bridge.
The total bill is now expected to come in at between £1.4bn and £1.6bn, well below previous estimates of £2.4bn. The financial pressure to make savings is acute, as payment for the bridge is coming from the Scottish Government’s £30bn-a-year budget when ministers are attempting to deal with a freeze on their annual block grant.
Officials point out that they have to follow EU rules on tendering which stipulate that any company across the single market can bid for contracts.
The suggestion that Hochtief is favourite to win the cement contract circulated within industry and political circles last week.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, Gray said: “If this Scottish Government contract goes to a German company it will be bad news for my constituents in East Lothian. Over 150 of them work at the Lafarge cement factory in Dunbar. The factory has been badly hit by the crisis in construction and the workforce has suffered long periods of short-time working.
“They will practically be able to see the new Forth Bridge from the factory, but instead cement will be shipped in.”
He added: “Lafarge has a rail halt at the Dunbar factory, so not only would the material have to travel the shortest possible distance – it would not even need to go by road.
“Scottish ministers are well aware that this environmentally preferable solution exists, because I sent them the details months ago.”
He went on: “This is the biggest infrastructure project in our history, it dominates the whole capital programme, and it starts to look as if it is stimulating every economy except our own. Frankly, I am fed up of Alex Salmond telling us that he needs more powers or more money to combat unemployment when his government is so woefully inept at deploying the resources they do have for the benefit of Scotland.”
Transport Scotland said it had sought out local contractors with the aim of ensuring as many as possible had the chance to compete for tenders. But they pointed out that the main contracts for the bridge had to be procured under “strict EU procurement law”.
The new bridge is expected to be built by 2016, replacing the current Forth Road Bridge as the main crossing for cross-Forth traffic.