Nicola Sturgeon apologises and says she 'regrets' lengthy A9 dualling delay

The former first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, says she has “deep regret” for the people who have lost their lives on the A9

Nicola Sturgeon has apologised for the Scottish Government’s inability to dual the A9 by 2025, saying she holds “deep regret” at the number of people who have died on the major road.

The former first minister questioned whether ministers were honest enough with the public at just how challenging the 2025 target was. However, the Scottish Conservatives said the SNP would “never” allow such delays to happen in the Central Belt, accusing ministers of not caring about rural Scotland.

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The project to dual the A9 between Perth and Inverness has been plagued with setbacks, and has now been delayed by at least ten years to 2035. So far only two of the 11 sections of the project have been completed, despite the initial plans to finish the project completely by next year.

Ms Sturgeon was giving evidence to a Holyrood committee on Wednesday when she apologised for the delays and said the people of the Highlands had “every right” to feel the way they did.

She was asked by Fergus Ewing, who was her rural affairs secretary, whether she would apologise to his constituents in Inverness and Nairn, and the rest of the people living in the Highlands.

Fergus Ewing, SNP MSP for Inverness and Nairn. Image: Jane Barlow/Press Association.Fergus Ewing, SNP MSP for Inverness and Nairn. Image: Jane Barlow/Press Association.
Fergus Ewing, SNP MSP for Inverness and Nairn. Image: Jane Barlow/Press Association.

Ms Sturgeon said: “I am sorry we haven’t dualled the road by 2025. I regret that, and I think people in the Highlands have every right to feel the way they do, not just because a target was set and not met, but the nature of the project. The loss of life is a matter of deep regret for everyone.”

However, the former SNP leader said she did not accept the failure was because Government ministers “didn’t bother and weren’t trying”.

She said: “Looking at it now I would ask myself ‘were we as candid with the public at just how challenging it would be to meet that target?’”

Ms Sturgeon said the delays were down to “unforeseen” circumstances such as changes to private finance regulations, Brexit, austerity and the coronavirus pandemic.

The former first minister said: “What I am not saying is ‘sorry we messed up’. It’s ‘sorry a whole range of circumstances, many beyond our control, meant we weren’t able to deliver that target’.

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“I understand the feelings of people in the Highlands on that, and that is why it’s important now the project is completed on the revised timescale.”

Ms Sturgeon made the comments during an appearance at the citizen participation and public petitions committee, which is carrying out an inquiry into the delays on the A9 project on the back of a petition submitted by Kincraig resident Laura Hansler. 

During her appearance, Ms Sturgeon also dismissed accusations from Mr Ewing and Conservative MSP Maurice Golden suggesting the delays were down to the Scottish Greens entering government or because of climate change targets.

Mr Ewing said: “Many people say the influence of the Greens, who were a part of government since 2021, had a negative effect.

Scottish Green co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater. Image: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.Scottish Green co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater. Image: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.
Scottish Green co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater. Image: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

“Plainly they are alone in all the parties in Holyrood opposing the dualling of the A9. Therefore there is a strong feeling, and I have no evidence of this, but there is a strong feeling their role played a part in that.”

Mr Golden added: “There were ambitious climate targets set in 2019 and potentially failing to meet these emissions targets could have had an influence over the priority of dualling the A9.”

In response, Ms Sturgeon said: “It is not the case that this was down to the Greens being in government. People can read the Bute House Agreement and see the commitments to the A9 were not affected by that.”

She also said the dualling project was about “safety” rather than providing extra road capacity, and therefore climate change targets did not have an impact on the project being delayed. 

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Ms Sturgeon also denied accusations she and her Government de-prioritised the A9 dualling project, but said the new Scottish Government under John Swinney could consider bringing the new 2035 target date forward if “practically possible”.

When asked about this, the former first minister said: “If practically possible, then yes. It is not fair of me to comment on whether I think it is practically possible, but if it is, then yes, an acceleration of the timescale is something the Government should try and achieve.

“John [Swinney] is an MSP on the route of the A9, so if it is practically possible then I am sure he would be open-minded to doing that - but it is important I don’t speak for the Government.”

First Minister John Swinney is also the MS for Perthshire North. Image: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.First Minister John Swinney is also the MS for Perthshire North. Image: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.
First Minister John Swinney is also the MS for Perthshire North. Image: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

Ms Sturgeon said on reflection, she did not think her Government could have done anything differently that would have meant the initial 2025 target would have been met.

The petition submitted to the Scottish Parliament by Ms Hansler called on the Government to recommit to its 2025 target. It also asked for a memorial to be built on the road to commemorate those who have died.

Ms Sturgeon said she would support such an idea, and suggested a garden would be a fitting memorial.

She said: “We tend to have memorials for disasters and tragedies with significant loss of life in a single incident, which is entirely appropriate, but we don’t do the same for loss of life over a period of time, and I think we should.

“My views on this have been strengthened by the Covid experience. I know from my very close involvement with bereaved families how important it is to have recognition and a place people can go to reflect.”

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Her appearance at the Holyrood committee has been slammed by the Scottish Tories, who said Ms Sturgeon was trying to avoid blame and responsibility for the delays on the project.

Stephen Kerr MSP said: “This was a typical Nicola Sturgeon display of stonewalling and buck-passing to try and justify her SNP Government’s abject failure to dual the A9 by 2025.

Stephen Kerr MSP.Stephen Kerr MSP.
Stephen Kerr MSP.

“As ever, she refused to accept responsibility for the upgrading of Scotland’s deadliest road falling an intolerable ten years behind schedule - it was all down to unforeseen factors beyond her control.”

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