SNP's excuses over A9 destroyed by former nationalist MSP Alex Neil – Murdo Fraser
Like most people from the Highlands, I grew up with the A9 as a part of everyday life. I am old enough to recall the road before the current route was constructed, when on family holidays to the south we would meander through numerous towns and villages, often stuck in long queues behind trucks or tractors, and taking hours to complete the 110-mile journey from Inverness to Perth.
The “new A9”, constructed in the 1970s and 80s, was a vast improvement on what had gone before. Stretches of dual carriageway with better opportunities for overtaking, bypassing local communities making the road to holidays much faster. But that time-saving was itself short-lived.
As the population of Inverness swelled, so traffic on the A9 more than quadrupled. We saw a pattern of serious and fatal accidents occurring on single-carriageway sections of the A9, contributed to by driver confusion over whether they were actually on a dual carriageway or not. Long queues behind frustratingly slow-moving traffic on single-carriageway sections led to rash overtaking manoeuvres, sometimes with fatal consequences.
I can speak from personal experience about the dangers of the A9, having been involved in a serious head-on crash myself back in 1990, which left me in hospital with multiple fractures. Fortunately, there were no fatalities on that occasion, but many others have not been so blessed.
For decades, I have been part of the campaign to have the A9 upgraded to a full dual carriageway all the way from Perth to Inverness. Campaigners were delighted when, back in 2011, the then SNP government announced that they would take forward the dualling project. At last, we would see a road fit for the 21st century, and a substantial reduction in the number of serious injuries and deaths.
But since the flourish of that announcement, progress has been woefully slow. Under the SNP government, only 11 miles of dual carriageway have actually been completed, and there are no firm plans to complete the remainder. Eleven miles in 12 years. Of the nine single-carriageway sections, only one – Tomatin to Moy – is now going out to tender.
Successive SNP transport ministers have come out with ever more fanciful excuses as to why the dualling project has not progressed, variously blaming Brexit, Covid and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Some much-needed light was shone on the whole issue by the former Infrastructure Secretary in the Scottish Government, Alex Neil, when he gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee last week.
Contrary to claims that the initial 2025 target for completing the dualling of the A9 was simply “aspirational”, Mr Neil was clear that there was a realistic and fully costed plan to complete the dualling set out by his officials in Transport Scotland in May 2012. Had that been followed, we would be well on our way today to seeing the road upgrade completed.
Mr Neil told the committee that Transport Scotland had assured him that both physically and financially it was perfectly feasible to achieve the dualling of the A9 by 2025, followed by the dualling of the A96 between Inverness and Aberdeen by 2030. Senior officials, he said, gave him a detailed plan in May 2012, setting out the timelines for when each part of the A9 would be dualled.
Speaking to the same committee in June, Transport Scotland had stated that these timelines were simply “aspirational”. This was, according to Mr Neil, “utter rubbish”.
Perhaps even more significantly, Mr Neil was clear in his evidence that the funding had been identified to complete the A9 project, relying on uncommitted capital funds between 2011 and 2030. That would have brought the project cost in under budget, but because of delays the likely final ticket will be at least £1 billion more.
So where did all this go wrong? Mr Neil’s replacement in the infrastructure brief was Nicola Sturgeon, and he was clear that it was under her watch that the A9 project did not proceed. This was, in his words, “betraying a promise” to northern Scotland by putting the project on the back burner.
We are in the situation today where the First Minister Humza Yousaf is claiming that his government is still “absolutely committed” to the dualling project, whilst also being clear that it cannot be completed before the next Holyrood election in May 2026. At the current rate of progress, we could perhaps add 20 years to that timescale.
In the meantime, lives continue to be lost. In the course of the last year, there were 13 fatalities on the A9, 12 of them on single-carriageway sections. It would be reasonable to draw the conclusion that the great majority, if not all, of those lives could have been saved had there been a dual carriageway in place. With every year that goes by, more people are going to die, more families are going to face tragedy, and there will be more horrific incidents for members of the emergency services to have to deal with.
The SNP MSP Fergus Ewing has been an outspoken critic of the delays to the A9 project. That is one of the reasons he has been punished with a one-week suspension of the SNP whip at Holyrood. Undeterred, he is determined to continue to press the case for an upgrade to this killer road.
In that, he will not be alone. Along with Scottish Conservative colleagues representing both Perth and Kinross and the Highlands and Islands, I will continue to push the case for this vital road project to be completed. We now know from Alex Neil’s evidence that the plan was there. The money was there. It was the political will that was missing. If the SNP do not now deliver on their promise, they will not be forgiven.
Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife
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