Forth Road Bridge: MSPs claim minister misled Holyrood

A PARLIAMENTARY inquiry is to be held into the prolonged closure of the Forth Road Bridge, it emerged yesterday.

The Forth Road Bridge. Picture: Jane Barlow
The Forth Road Bridge. Picture: Jane Barlow

The move came shortly after transport minister Derek MacKay admitted that a planned bridge repair five years ago, which was cancelled, would have “replaced” the section where a 20mm crack was spotted last week.

Mr MacKay’s admission, which came less than 24 hours after he told MSPs at Holyrood that the 2010 repair work would not have affected the damaged area of the bridge, prompted accusations that the minister was “misleading the public”.

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Businesses in areas surrounding the bridge last night warned that the closure was taking its toll on them, while commuters continue to face widespread disruption.

Yesterday it was confirmed that MSPs on the infrastructure committee will meet to set out the terms of the “focussed” parliamentary inquiry next week.

But with Holyrood closing down for the festive break next week, the inquiry is unlikely to get under way before the bridge is due to re-open in January.

A Scottish Parliament spokesman said: “The infrastructure and capital investment committee will examine options for conducting a focussed inquiry into the issues that have led to the closure of the Forth Road Bridge.

“Committee members will attend a technical briefing for MSPs from Transport Scotland/Amey on Monday and will use its meeting next Wednesday to consider the nature and scope of any inquiry.”

Mr Mackay made an unscheduled statement to MSPs at Holyrood last night amid furious opposition claims that he had misled Parliament 24 hours earlier about cancelled maintenance plans for the bridge.

On Tuesday, when asked if the cancelled 2010 repairs could have helped the current problem, Mr Mackay said those repairs were “not where the fault has occurred”.

But yesterday, Mr MacKay admitted this would have replaced the area which cracked, although it was part of wider programme of repairs being considered by bridge officials. He accepted it “would have seen the replacement of that area and much more”.

The Forth Estuary Transport Authority (Feta) had “re-scoped” the project, Mr MacKay said, after receiving advice from engineers and insisted that work would have caused far lengthier disruption than commuters ­currently face.

Mr Mackay said: “Feta, the operating company at the time, would have been informed that other works would have addressed what was identified to be the problem. On that advice, they re-scoped their work and that is what we inherited.”

The Scotsman has been told bridge officials went ahead with more limited strengthening work following advice from specialist engineers. It cost some £425,000 compared to an estimated £10 million-£15m for the fuller work. Scottish Labour deputy leader and Fife MSP Alex Rowley said: “Derek MacKay’s extraordinary comments confirm exactly why we need a full parliamentary inquiry into what has gone wrong with the bridge.

“For an SNP minister to admit that cancelled repair works would have replaced the damaged section of the bridge as far back as 2010 raises many more questions about the actions of the government.

“In recent days Nicola Sturgeon dismissed suggestions that cancelled repair works were linked to the bridge closure but now Derek MacKay is saying something different.”

Conservative enterprise spokesman Murdo Fraser said the situation was “catastrophic” for motorists and business which are poised to lose millions of pounds in trade.

He said: “Just yesterday Derek MacKay told ministers the closure had nothing to do with previous work which needed done. Now we have him admitting on radio that the problem could have been avoided if work had gone ahead in 2010.

“The minister who currently holds the portfolio for transport should not mislead the public, we need solid answers now.”

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the Holyrood inquiry should not be held until the bridge has reopened.

He said: “The priority at the moment must be fixing the fault as quickly as possible. No-one should be distracted from that.

“This has had a big effect on the local community. Travellers, local residents and business owners deserve answers on how this happened.

“We need a full examination of the decisions, inspection and maintenance regime and consideration of the contingency plans that were in place.”

The bridge is the main commuter route between Fife and Edinburgh. Thousands of drivers have been forced to make alternative arrangements as a result of the closure, while hauliers have warned that they are facing losses of about £660,000 while it remains shut.

The Scottish Government is also funding the new Queensferry Crossing to replace the existing bridge at a cost of £1.3 billion.

Mr MacKay said yesterday that the bridge is “over 51 years old, it’s been carrying more than it was designed for by way of traffic and weight”.

He also stressed there had been “ongoing investment” , with maintenance plans carried over when responsibility for the structure switched from Feta to the Scottish Government.

“They were not reduced from what was inherited,” the minister said.