Pressure on Swinney as doubts grow over funding of new £4bn Forth bridge

JOHN Swinney was last night under pressure to explain how he intends to finance a new £4.22bn Forth bridge as more confusion surrounded the Scottish Government's plans to raise cash for major public building projects.

With the economy plunging into recession and Scotland's budget facing 1bn cuts over the next two years, opposition politicians questioned if the Finance Secretary could deliver Scotland's most expensive construction scheme. Despite reports suggesting Swinney intends to knock 1bn off the cost of a third bridge across the river when he unveils his Scottish Transport Review this week, doubts remain whether the ambitious plan can be financed.

"Swinney has to indicate how he proposes to fund this," said Des McNulty, Labour's transport spokesman. "What kind of practical arrangements do they have in place?"

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Swinney himself is said to be growing frustrated over the problems surrounding his plans to finance capital projects.

One method of funding believed to be under discussion is 'shadow tolling', whereby a private company would pay to build the bridge and then charge the Government an annual fee according to the number of motorists who use it.

The scheme would avoid the huge upfront costs of building the bridge, but would leave ministers open to accusations they were effectively buying the bridge on 'hire purchase'.

Yesterday it was suggested the Government was planning to announce a 1bn reduction from the overall cost. It was claimed the cost could come down as contractors would be prepared to work for a reduced rate due to the financial crisis.

But Alison McInnes, the Liberal Democrat transport spokeswoman, said: "My very real fear is that we are not going to get a commitment to the project. I think they are struggling very much to come up with the cash. They have over-promised on transport and it is a very significant problem."

The bridge, which will stretch for more than a mile over the Forth, is to be built alongside the existing but ageing road bridge and its sister – the red steel and granite rail bridge, built nearly 120 years ago.

Doubts over funding have been intensified by the chaos surrounding the new funding mechanism for public projects.

The new bridge has been billed as the ultimate test for the Scottish Futures Trust (SFT), which the SNP has introduced to replace private finance initiatives and public private partnerships as the Government's method of building schools and hospitals.

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But ministers have yet to announce whether the crossing will be financed by the SFT, which has been subjected to a barrage of criticism since it was established in September with merchant banker Sir Angus Grossart as chairman. It had been envisaged that the SFT would be funded by local government-issued bonds, but critics have said it has been downgraded to a body to lobby Government for resources.

McNulty said:

"If they can't use the Futures Trust to finance the crossing, it will raise serious questions about the trust and whether it can deliver major projects. The problem that they have with the trust is that they have sold it as a funding mechanism and it seems to be effectively an advisory mechanism."

According to a memo seen by Scotland on Sunday, Grossart recently admitted to local authorities that the SFT does not yet have access to any funds.

Jeremy Purvis, the Lib Dem finance spokesman, said: "The trust is an extremely expensive empty vessel. Its cost of 23m is a scandalous waste of money when all that it now appears to be is a lobby arm."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "All I can say is that these proposals will be outlined on Wednesday in Parliament by John Swinney."