SNP faces hovercraft dust-up

CONCERNS were voiced today that the SNP's biggest donor could receive millions of pounds of public money to subsidise a hovercraft service across the Forth without the contract going out to tender.

Brian Souter's Stagecoach group has drawn up a business case for the route following a two-week trial last summer, but it says it would need a 3.3 million subsidy.

Mr Souter gave 500,000 to the SNP's campaign at last year's election and 125,000 since. Today Lothians Labour MSP George Foulkes warned that when a government was dealing with a company whose chief executive was a major party donor, "highest possible standards of openness must apply".

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The hovercraft trial in July between Portobello and Kirkcaldy was backed with 92,000 from the South East of Scotland Transport Partnership (Sestran).

In October Stagecoach unveiled proposals for a regular Leith-Kirkcaldy service with investment from the company of 10.3m, but requiring a public sector subsidy of 3.3m for the first three years.

In a written parliamentary answer, Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson said Sestran had had no direct discussions with other potential hovercraft operators.

Mr Stevenson said procurement of a hovercraft service would have to comply with all relevant European Union legislation.

But he added: "Whether any tender process was required would depend on the specific circumstances of any case."

Mr Foulkes said: "If the SNP wants to rise above any suspicion that there's something dodgy going on, then there really should a be a tender for the work.

"After Trump and the latest revelations about the MacDonald Hotels' planning applications, there are now serious concerns over the government's relationship with Stagecoach.

"When a government is dealing with a company whose chief executive gave the SNP 625,000, the highest possible standards of openness must apply."

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Stagecoach said it was a matter for the various public sector agencies to decide on what basis any support would be given and what rules governed it.

A spokesman added: "We would expect nothing less than for our proposals to undergo the same rigorous assessment that any other project would receive."

A Scottish Government spokesman said it had not received a detailed business plan from any company for a Forth hovercraft service and until it did, questions about tendering were hypothetical.

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