Analysis: Can Boris Johnson build support in Scotland with infrastructure projects?

The problem with giant infrastructure projects like bridges is they take a long time to build - and the politicians who sign them off are often forgotten by the time they open, writes Chris McCall

It was way back in 2006 when the Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood first announced plans to press ahead with the long-mooted electrification of Scotland’s busiest stretch of railway.

Fast forward to 2020 and the Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme - to give the project its official title - is slowly nearing its conclusion. The expanded and refurbished Queen Street station is due to be signed off this year, following similar improvements carried out at Haymarket seven years ago.

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The new electric trains which now serve the route are also in full operation after several delays. But no one is thanking the Labour-Lib Dem coalition.

The Oresund Bridge, a combined railway and motorway bridge between Sweden and Denmark, has been cited as an inspiration for a crossing over the North Channel. Picture: Wikicommons

To put it bluntly: building stuff can be a painfully slow process in the UK. And the party that happens to be in power whenever a project is finally completed is usually the one that claims the credit.

Big ticket projects

Boris Johnson will know this, of course. But he’s long been a politician who believes in the power of big ticket projects. Londoners will well remember the garden bridge debacle or the so-called “Boris island” airport.

“The PM is ambitious in terms of infrastructure projects,” Mr Johnson’s spokesman said yesterday.

“He’s looking at a wide range of schemes across the UK which could improve connectivity.”

His backing of HS2 this week was always likely to happen. Similar to David Cameron’s reluctant decision to move forward with the construction of two new naval aircraft carriers, HS2 was a project already so big it would have been a political nightmare to cancel.

However, building a stretch of high-speed track to Birmingham is a stroll in the park in civil engineering terms compared to the logistical challenges presented by a bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland.

This is an old idea and one that has been suggested by several politicians on both sides of the North Channel over the years.

But none of them were resident in Downing Street when they were calling for such a bridge. Mr Johnson, we are told, has the might of the UK civil service working on a feasibility study to see if the gap between Ulster and Wigtonshire really could be bridged.

The many and varied challenges of building such a crossing can be read elsewhere. A question many are asking is why the prime minister is so keen on a project that is so fiendishly complex.

Union dividend

Like so much in Scottish politics, this ultimately comes down to the independence debate.

The Prime Minister, it is has been widely reported, is determined to take on the SNP’s dominance of the political agenda north of the Border.

He has already told Nicola Sturgeon the Scottish Government will not be granted the powers required to hold another referendum on independence.

Now he wants to remind Scottish voters of how the UK Government is hard at work to improve their lives. Yet that’s not as easy in the era of devolution as it was in the pre-Holyrood days.

For two decades now, MSPs have been responsible for health, education, roads, and a whole load of other areas important to the day-to-day lives of ordinary Scots.

Which explains why Michael Gove suggested last year that Westminster could start spending cash in traditionally devolved areas which he believed would strengthen the Union.

He said that while a “Treasury rule” means that the UK government “can’t spend money in areas that are devolved”, “once we’ve given the Scottish Government their fair share, the UK government should be able to spend additional money on the basis of need for projects that will strengthen the Union.”

Transport is one such devolved area. If UK ministers are serious about building a crossing beginning at Portpatrick, the approach roads required would come under the responsibility of Holyrood.

Scottish secretary Alister Jack represents a constituency in the south-west and is said to be a keen supporter of a bridge.

Anyone from Galloway doesn’t need to be reminded that transport in the region leaves a lot to be desired. The motorway network doesn’t reach Dumfries, let alone Stranraer, and there isn’t even so much as a rail link to the relocated ferry port at Cairnryan.

Clearly there is room for improvement. But is a bridge to Ulster really the answer?

Given HS2 has already been debated for over a decade, it’s anyone’s guess how long such a project could take to get off the drawing board.

Just by raising the idea, the PM is trying to remind voters that only the UK Government - and not the devolved administrations - is capable of carrying out such a grand design.

Patient voters

One of the selling points of HS2 is that it will provide benefits to anyone using the national rail network. It will, for example, provide increased capacity and allow for more services to run on existing mainline routes.

But most passengers who live north of Birmingham are unlikely to notice such improvements. They want to see new trains or refurbished station concourses.

This is particularly true in Scotland. The reopening of the historic Curzon Street station is unlikely to mean much to the thousands of commuters who rely upon the frequently overcrowded commuter trains running from Fife to Edinburgh on weekdays.

The SNP understands this and is already using the HS2 confirmation to push for wider improvements to the rail links north and south of the Border.

High speed rail to the Midlands is unlikely to win votes in Scotland. But will a bridge to Northern Ireland?

Building in stages

One possible scenario is the PM announces the UK Government will offer funding for substantial road or rail improvements in south-west Scotland, and across the water in Larne. This could be billed as the first phase of a bridge project - providing the upgraded land connections required for an eventual crossing.

As transport is devolved, it would be up to Holyrood ministers to ultimately decide how the cash is spent.

With upgrades in place, a final decision on whether to go ahead with the bridge part could be quietly left to a future UK Government.

There has already been talk at Scottish Government level on the possibility of reopening the long-closed line between Dumfries and Stranraer, with a view to improving links to the Cairnryan ferry port.

Perhaps the Boris bridge will really prove to be a Boris railway.