Red tape threatens to strangle Boris Johnson’s ‘vanity project’

Boris Johnson’s bridge across the Irish Sea is likely to face a deluge of objections from local residents, a local MSP has said, risking it becoming snarled in the planning process

Mayor Johnson's failed garden bridge in London cost taxpayers £40 million
Mayor Johnson's failed garden bridge in London cost taxpayers £40 million

Scottish Labour transport spokesman and South of Scotland MSP Colin Smyth said the proposed 20-mile Scotland-Northern Ireland bridge would face “enormous” planning hurdles and warned “there wouldn’t be a shortage of objections”.

It raises the prospect of the £20 billion project being called in by the Scottish Government and being subfect to a public inquiry, potentially giving SNP ministers the power to block the Prime Minister’s plans.

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In a letter to his UK counterpart, Grant Shapps, this week, the Scottish Government’s Transport Secretary Michael Matheson dismissed the bridge as a “vanity project” and joined Northern Irish transport minister Nichola Mallon in demanding urgent talks.

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As transport is devolved, the Scottish Government would be responsible for any new access roads and for the additional traffic generated by the bridge, but Matheson complained that there had been no contact from UK officials “despite repeated requests for information”.

Smyth told Scotland on Sunday the Prime Minister had to “stop fantasising about a bridge” and instead direct investment into local A-roads in Southwest Scotland.

“Even in the very unlikely event that someone could design a bridge to cope with the Irish sea and manage the risks and depth of Beaufort’s Dyke, the planning hurdles would be enormous,” he said.

“I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks the idea is anything other than fantasy politics and who would want a bridge even if it were possible, so there wouldn’t be a shortage of objections.”

Major infrastructure projects developed by the Scottish Government, such as the Queensferry Crossing, have had planning permission granted by ministers through legislation.

It is unclear how the UK government, which is carrying out initial scoping work on a Scotland-Northern Ireland bridge, would seek to navigate the Scottish planning system.

However, Scottish ministers have the power to call in any development that “raises issues of such national importance that it is reasonable”.

Scottish Government policy states that “ministers might choose to intervene in circumstances where a government agency has expressed strong concerns about the impact of development on their national interests, or where the possible impacts or benefits of a proposed development extend well beyond the area of the local authority to the extent that they become of national importance”.

Objections to a development are not in themselves grounds for a project to be called in, but ministers are automatically notified of planning applications “where the proposed development is significantly contrary to the development plan for the area”.

The most likely route for the bridge would be from Portpatrick in Dumfries and Galloway to Larne in Northern Ireland.

Local residents and elected officials – who have yet to be consulted about the project – have warned that a bridge would be impossible without significant improvements to local infrastructure, particularly access roads.

In the first instance, those planning decisions, which would be critical to the bridge’s delivery, will be handled by Dumfries and Galloway Council, which is led by a Labour-SNP administration.

Smyth added: “The current state of the road and rail links from the central belt and north of England to Portpatrick are appalling and would be yet another hurdle in the way of planning.

“There also isn’t a need. We already have a virtual bridge to Northern Ireland: it’s called the Cairnryan Ferry Port. People don’t complain about the ferries to Larne or Belfast.

“They complain about the journey to get the ferries because the A75 and 77 and rail connections aren’t fit for purpose.

“If the Prime Minister gave us a fraction of the £20bn he seems to have to spend on this vanity project and used it to strengthen the existing infrastructure links to Cairnryan Ferry Port that would do more to build bridges between Scotland and Northern Ireland than his Boris bridge.”

The bridge is being championed by Scottish Secretary Alister Jack, who represents the Dumfries and Galloway constituency at Westminster.

If the plans are taken forward, they are expected to be one of the first examples of Johnson’s government investing directly in transport infrastructure in Scotland in a bid to re-enforce support for the Union.

A planned Shared Prosperity Fund, replacing EU Structural Funds which have been administered by the government in Edinburgh, is also expected to see investment flow directly from Whitehall to local authorities, businesses, charities and infrastructure in Scotland and across the UK.