Firms told time running out on Forth Road Bridge

SCOTLAND 2018: The Forth Road Bridge is closed, its safe operation compromised by decades of over-stressing, its mighty steel suspension cables eaten by rust.

As the 25 million vehicles that in 2017 used this artery of Scotland's work and leisure life are forced to find other routes, north and south, central Scotland is in permanent gridlock. Supermarket shelves sit bare, petrol and beer pumps run dry while HGVs crawl along the 40-mile detour via the Kincardine Bridge. Traffic movement on the M9 and the A8 past Edinburgh airport makes the M25 look like Le Mans.

Within sight of the abandoned bridge the skeletal outline of the new 1 billion "multi-modal" crossing (bus lanes, tram/light rail tracks as well as road), has at last taken shape. Emergency working-time dispensations making completion possible "within two years" of the closing of the old one.

Meanwhile at Holyrood's Forth Bridge Inquest, lawyers pore over how the second crossing decision, deferred pending the 2007 Scottish elections, led to the biggest economic disaster for Scotland since Darien.

Absurdly apocalyptic? Not according to Hew Balfour, chief executive of Havelock Europa, the 42m-turnover interior manufacturer and school supplier based in Dalgety Bay in Fife. Having learned the facts from the Forth Estuary Transport Authority's bridgemaster, Alastair Andrew, and self-interest combined with concern for Scotland's reputation made Balfour the first business voice to go public on the economic effects of the busted bridge.

Since offering Havelock as a test case for firms that may be forced to leave Scotland unless a bridge decision was made quickly, Balfour has since picked up the support of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, and the Fife and Edinburgh local chambers, as well as the discreet encouragement of his local MP - Gordon Brown.

"Havelock has 50 to 70 HGVs crossing the bridge every week. Uncertainty makes it very difficult to operate a manufacturing business in Fife. We will make relocation choice soon based on whether a new bridge will definitely be in place, and there are plenty of other businesses like us," Balfour says.

"This is not a Fife issue. It's an issue for any business in Scotland that relies on HGV deliveries or that has a workforce commuting from the other side of the Estuary, be they SMEs or big companies like RBS and Standard Life."

Balfour's frustration - with what he sees as political cowardice that has deferred a decision until after May's election - stems from simple maths.

The discovery of (probably irreversible) rust in the bridge's suspension cables means that, barring some miraculous cure, the Forth Road Bridge will be forced to close to HGVs in 2013 and to all traffic in 2018. That leaves 11 years at the very most in which a bridge has to be completed. But 11 years is also the best estimate of how much time it takes to build a bridge, from green-lighting to ribbon-cutting (the second Severn Bridge took 12 years). So every month's delay now translates into a month with no road connection across the Forth.

"The dates of when the bridge will fall below the necessary safety standard is not certain," says Balfour. "We won't know until further inspection of the bridge is undertaken. Even if the 2013 and 2018 dates a are best case, this politically motivated delay has alarming implications. The Executive would be unlikely to make the decision for many months, but if the decision on whether to start a new bridge is deferred until 2008, then we are damned."

Balfour has been canvassing MPs and MSPs, starting with the local one, who reserves on-record interventions into Forth matters for by-elections:

"Gordon Brown told me that the voice of business had not been sufficiently loud on this issue," Balfour says.

Despite his day job running a fast-growing plc, Balfour intends to promote practical needs of business people whose livelihoods are at stake over what he sees as the electoral calculations of politicians - whose livelihoods are unaffected.

"Yes it will cost a lot, but PFIs have been used effectively for Scotland's schools and we can use the same mechanism to do this. Never mind next year's election, Scotland will be judged on whether it can manage this small degree of forward thinking."

Bridge of sighs: How Scotland missed its chance

THE 2.5km Forth Road Bridge, which cost 19.5 million and opened in 1964, was designed to bear the weight of a maximum of 11 million vehicles a year, a wild figure given that only 4m made the crossing in its first year.

But traffic has risen steadily to 23 million vehicles at the last count, while the heaviest commercial vehicles have increased from 24 tonnes in 1964 to the current limit of 44 tonnes. Chronic congestion on and around the bridge led to the commissioning of the Tory-led Scottish Office's 1995 report "Setting Forth" which indicated "widely based support for a second Forth Road Bridge" and a wish for a "firm commitment to a second crossing".

With a rapid start, the best estimates saw the new bridge being completed by 2011. It was not to be.

Unlike the second Severn Bridge, opened 30 years after its overly-congested sister, the second Forth crossing fell victim to Scotland's changed political status, and fears by some in Edinburgh that it would worsen traffic levels there. In fact, only 17 per cent of road traffic on the Bridge goes to and from the capital.