A9 dualling: Former minister launches ‘explosive’ attack on Scottish Government over ‘damaging’ delays
The former minister in charge of dualling the A9 has launched an “explosive” attack on the Scottish Government, saying people cannot blame the pandemic, inflation or the influence of the Scottish Greens for the “damaging” delays to this project.
Alex Neil also accused the Government of Central Belt bias, saying ministers treated the Highlands as “peripheral” over A9 dualling.
The original plan was for the road to be completely dualled between Perth and Inverness by 2025, but there are now concerns it won’t be done until at least 2050. This is because the project was split into 11 different sections and, so far, only two of these sections have been finished.
Mr Neil was back in Holyrood on Wednesday to give evidence on why the project has been delayed. He said ministers cannot blame inflation, the cost-of-living crisis or the Covid pandemic for the issues that have plagued the project.
“It is extremely disappointing and damaging to the Scottish economy, and far more damaging to the Highlands and islands that this well-thought out project has not been completed, never mind completed on time,” he said.
“The lack of ambition is mind-numbing, quite frankly.”
This comes after 13 people died on the A9 last year, the majority on parts that have yet to be dualled.
He was talking to MSPs sitting on Holyrood’s citizen participation and public petitions committee, after campaigner Laura Hansler, from Kincraig, submitted a petition urging the Government to stick to its promise to dual the road by 2025.
Ms Hansler previously accused the Government of treating those living on the A9 like a forgotten backwater.
This was echoed by Mr Neil, who said: “This is not the only huge project we have done since 2007.
“We completed the M74, which we had to do to get the Commonwealth Games to Glasgow. We did the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, we did the Queensferry Crossing even though that was not in our original manifesto, and we upgraded the M8 and M74 around the Raith interchange, which has brought enormous economic benefits to central Scotland.
“But I think there was a mentality that the Highlands and islands were seen as peripheral.”
The exact schedule he had signed off while Cabinet secretary in 2011 was to complete Luncarty to Birnam by 2018/2019; Birnam to Ballinluig by 2024; Pitlochry to Killiecrankie by 2022; Killiecrankie to Glengarry by 2024; Glengarry to Crubenmore by 2024; Crubenmore to Kincraig by 2025; Kincraig to Dalraddy by 2017; Dalraddy to Slochd by 2025; and Tomatin to Moy by 2021.
Mr Neil said the decision to set 2025 as the target for completing the A9 dualling was made by expert officials rather than by ministers.
“I didn’t set a date and then ask officials to set a programme to that date,” he said. “I asked them for a date they could be sure all the work could be done by, and they recommended 2025.
“The finance department recommended the money would be there, so there was no question in my mind and everyone agreed it could be done.”
He also said Transport Scotland’s assertion the 2025 target date was merely “aspirational” was “not true” because a lot of work was done by officials behind the scenes before setting the 2025 target date.
The former Government minister also dismissed many of the excuses used to explain why there have been delays, such as the pandemic and inflation.
Mr Neil suggested the pandemic could only account for a delay of up to 18 months, and there was “no excuse for having missed these deadlines” prior to 2020.
He said: “The current financial constraints are not the reason for failure to deliver. Clearly it was meant to have been delivered by now, so I don’t see that as a reason for the delays.
“Because we have stalled, delayed, put it on the backburner and betrayed our promise to the Highlands and islands, because of all of that, this is eventually probably going to cost up to £1 billion more than it need have done.
“I suspect the foot has well and truly been taken off the accelerator.”
Mr Neil also criticised the Government for “huge missed opportunities” in signing the most recent fiscal framework, saying he would not have agreed to the plan because it was “a complete sell-out” and the Government “fell down on that”.
He suggested working with the UK Government and borrowing money that had no set date for repayment as ways of finding the funding needed for this project.
This comes after Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross hinted he could lobby the UK Government for A9 funding, promising to put major infrastructure projects at the heart of his party’s general election manifesto.
Another suggestion put on the table for raising money was having landowners who see an increase in the value of their land on the back of the A9 dualling made to share some of that wealth with the public purse – something Mr Neil said was “not uncontroversial, but reasonable”.
A spokeswoman for Transport Scotland said the government is committed to this project and expects to publish an updated programme of works this autumn.
They added: “We were always clear that 2025 was an ambitious target but also a feasible one.
“The advice provided to ministers in 2012 reflected this and this was the publicly stated position at that time.
“For example, in the press release of June 26th 2012, Mr Neil said ‘we have always said that delivery by 2025 was challenging but achievable’.
“As with all major infrastructure projects, the programme was subject to the timely and positive outcome of a range of factors such as the completion of public and stakeholder consultation, statutory approval processes, market capacity, supply chain availability, and the availability of funding.”
He was also scathing of the Bute House Agreement, which officially brought the Scottish Greens into government for the very first time, but conceded this is again not a reason for the delays.
The Scottish Greens have previously been against major road infrastructure projects over concerns about the impact it may have on the climate.
Mr Neil said: “Only in recent years have we had the influence of the Greens, who have a legitimate point of view that I don’t agree with. The way to solve emissions is to replace combustion engines with hydrogen buses and electric cars, but even they need decent roads to travel on.
“It is my understanding of the Bute House Agreement that these road projects have been excluded. The Greens oppose anything like this, but they have no responsibility for it in government – thank God – and are not able to veto the progress of these projects.”
Rebel backbencher Fergus Ewing branded Mr Neil’s attack as “informative, revelatory, and really quite explosive”.
Mr Ewing, who was suspended from the SNP last week, has repeatedly criticised the Government for the delays to A9 dualling, and has spoken out on the Bute House Agreement as well.
Transport Scotland and the Scottish Greens have both been approached for comment.
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