Leaders: Was Holyrood too hasty in ordering a new bridge?

FINDINGS that the corrosion of main cables on the Forth Road Bridge may not be as extensive as initially feared will be welcome news for all those users – particularly commercial vehicles – who feared looming curbs on traffic flow.

But it is bound to open up some searching questions on what now looks in retrospect a rush to approve a £1.6 billion replacement bridge and to prioritise this project in the administration’s capital spending plans before the true extent of the corrosion was known.

Was Holyrood “bounced” into giving its approval on the basis of fearful reports of decaying cables?

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Fear that the existing bridge would be unable to bear traffic loads and require curbs on use prompted ministers to approve a new bridge beside the Queensferry crossing with a completion date of 2016 in the event of the “worst-case scenario” coming to pass. That scenario does not look so likely now.

The original cable inspection in 2004 showed restrictions might have to be imposed by 2014. This was later put back to 2017 following the second check four years later. Dehumidification work – blowing dry air into the cables – started in October 2009. Now the air being pumped in to halt the corrosion is coming out dry – indicating it is being stabilised.

Bridge managers are increasingly confident a new inspection of the cable will show no further deterioration. If so, this would stave off traffic restrictions, such as a lorry ban, previously thought necessary as early as 2017, well into the future. This will be welcomed by “green” lobbyists opposed to a scheme which they say would increase the flow of gas-guzzling vehicular traffic.

The findings do not invalidate the case for a new Forth crossing. But they do beg questions as to why hugely expensive decisions were made before all the facts were known. Some were only too ready to charge ahead on the basis of incomplete information. And this had a material impact on the priority placing this project secured in the administration’s infrastructure spending plans. Put bluntly, it hogged the government’s transport budget.

There are many other projects deserving of capital spending support, such as the dualling of the A9, improvement to the Glasgow-Edinburgh road link and reconsideration of the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link. This project, ditched cavalierly in the stampede to get the trams scheme through Edinburgh city council and the Scottish Parliament, would have resulted in a major transport linkage in the heart of Scotland, providing direct connections between the airport and many towns, enabling a direct rail journey to the airport with no need to travel to the heart of Edinburgh city centre and struggle back out again.

The cost of the misplaced rush to give priority for the bridge has been substantial. Smaller projects would have been more “shovel-ready”, producing an economic boost when it is most needed.

Salmond should heed this warning

Independence campaigners may have thought they could easily swat aside warnings from CBI Scotland about the effects on business of the uncertainties created by a long referendum campaign stretching to 2014. But the statement from SSE (formerly Scottish & Southern Energy) setting out its concerns cannot be so easily brushed aside.

SSE is not just a major employer in Scotland – and one of our few big companies left – its role in the provision of gas and electricity infrastructure across Scotland and extending across the rest of the UK makes it a central player in First Minister Alex Salmond’s ambitions to make Scotland a global leader in the development and distribution of green energy. SSE plans to invest £3.5 billion in Scotland, and 5,000 of its 20,000-strong UK workforce is employed in Scotland.

It said yesterday the independence poll created “uncertainty” and “additional risk” over the future of the electricity and gas industry in Scotland. It also highlighted the upheaval that constitutional change would cause to its UK-wide operation.

“SSE will have to decide”, said the statement, “whether the additional risk of regulatory and legislative change … means it should apply a risk premium to the investment proposal.” This concern is almost certain to be shared by many other firms, and not least the uncertainties it prolongs over their investment and recruitment plans.

And it puts a further question mark by the First Minister’s insistence to prolong the referendum campaign out to the autumn of 2014. The SSE statement will be widely seen as adding support to those seeking an earlier poll date.

Finding a path in life’s moral maze

Many members of the Scottish Episcopal Church may have struggled with their faith through the many turbulent vicissitudes of life. But they may be taken aback to read that Richard Holloway, former head of the Anglican Church in Scotland, began to lose his faith in God just five years after he was ordained as a priest.

Bishop Holloway was a controversial figure, a restless champion of progressive causes, such as gay marriage and the ordination of women priests. Traditionalists would have long questioned whether he had biblical beliefs at all. But to carry on leading his congregation in prayer and offering spiritual guidance for so long in such circumstances is something of a feat.

Yet is it so odd? Mother Teresa confessed she wrestled with her faith. And many in the clergy have found themselves on a similar rocky journey. In politics, many have routinely lost their faith: socialists ascended to the House of Lords, while many “born-again” free marketeers lost their faith in the three market crashes of the past decade.

In coming to the conclusion that “there may be no God in the universe, but let’s live as though there is”, Bishop Holloway lived by the beliefs and precepts of his ordination. He may have lost his faith, but he never lost the place in life’s moral maze.