If any development is ripe for making political capital, it is a complex, multimillion pound capital investment project. The scale of such initiatives demand vast budgets and planning on the part of an array of partners. With that, comes risk and with that, the opportunity for politicians to work themselves into a lather. With its £1.35 billion bill and near six-year construction timeframe, the Queensferry Crossing is the perfect example.
No-one, least of all communities in Fife, will have welcomed yesterday’s announcement by Keith Brown that the new bridge will not meet its target opening date of this December.
The infrastructure secretary told parliament it is unlikely the crossing will be ready until the middle of next May. Given the entire intiative has been on schedule until now, it is a disappointing development, but perhaps it is the very fact that the scheme has been largely without hiccups that led to some of the excessive criticism yesterday, elements of which bordered on hysteria.
Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western, claimed the project was in “abject distress”, later insisting that “we now face the prospect of months of uncertainty over when the new bridge will be open to traffic”.
In the grand scheme of capital projects which have gone seriously wrong, Mr Cole-Hamilton’s assessment of the Queensferry Crossing is at best premature.
Crucially, the delay identifies no wrongdoing or serious misjudgments. Mr Brown said that, until now, the Forth Crossing Bridge Constructors (FCBC) have successfully managed every risk to the construction of the bridge that they can influence. But, he pointed out: “The only risk the contractor has no control over is weather.”
Indeed, Mr Brown’s statement makes clear that 25 days lost over April and May due to high winds used up the time contractors had put aside for contingencies, which led to the the delay in completion.
This is a regrettable but unavoidable reality. We are entitled – some might may say, duty bound – to make stern demands of our government, yet asking them to influence the weather is perhaps verging on unrealistic.
That is not to say that Mr Brown and the government should be fully excused. Confusion has reigned over how the lost 25 days have contributed to a delay that will last five months. The lengthy explanation for the setback failed to address this point in a way the public could understand. The numbers do not add up and though there may be a perfectly appreciable technical explanation, it would have been prudent to disclose it.
Yet if a failure of communication is the biggest problem facing the Queensferry Crossing project, those behind it have reason to consider their work a qualified success. The new finishing date remains slightly ahead of the contractual completion date of June 2017 and Mr Brown has said the taxpayer will not have to pay any more money. For the moment, he has no reason to panic. Any further delay, however, would be a different story.
Science appointment long overdue
The appointment of Professor Sheila Rowan as Scotland’s new chief scientific adviser is a welcome and overdue development. The post had lain vacant since December 2014, when Professor Muffy Calder stepped down. That such an important position went unfilled for so long attracted criticism from the country’s scientific community. Rightly so, for informed opinion is crucial in helping shape Scottish Government policy.
The appointment of Prof Rowan, an expert on gravitational waves, is a sign of progress. Already she has made it clear she intends to utilise the full powers of her office to ensure “evidence is taken into account” when decisions are being made.
Given her reputation, it seems reasonable to suppose that Prof Rowan will have sought out firm guarantees that her voice – and those of her peers – will not be ignored. From the moratorium on fracking and underground coal gasification – areas in which a CSA would have been expected to provide ministers with advice – the Scottish Government has struggled to provide evidence to justify its decision making.
Perhaps its most contentious stance – the ban on GM crops – was adopted while the CSA post was vacant. Prof Calder and another previous CSA, Dame Anne Glover, offered strong criticism of that move.
It would be a show of authority were Prof Rowan to recommend that the GM crops decision be reviewed. Of course, she must reach that conclusion based on her own research and experience, but the government has been allowed to bypass scientific expertise for too long. Let us hope Prof Rowan’s appointment changes that.