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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, May 2, 2024


Portfolio Question Time


The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. The next item of business is portfolio questions on transport. I invite members who wish to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question.

Question 1 has been withdrawn.

Air Departure Tax (Short-haul Flights)

2. Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the transport secretary has had with ministerial colleagues regarding the potential impact on Scotland’s aviation industry of any proposals to levy an air departure tax on short-haul flights in Scotland. (S6O-03373)

The Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity (Jim Fairlie)

The Scottish Government continues to explore all the options to implement an air departure tax in a way that protects the connectivity of the Highlands and Islands and complies with the UK Government’s subsidy control regime. At this stage, ministers have not discussed the specific issue that has been highlighted, but we will ensure that all viable options for an air departure tax are evaluated.

Brian Whittle

I think that, across the chamber, we all recognise the importance of reducing transport’s carbon footprint but, unlike some, I do not believe that we can best achieve that change by punishing travellers through higher costs for more carbon-intensive travel. Instead, we should be looking to support the innovation that is already under way in Scotland’s aerospace sector to create greener aircraft that are powered by alternatives such as sustainable aviation fuel and hydrogen. Does the minister agree that, before implementing any punitive taxes that would harm an important sector for our economy, we should expand our efforts to support zero-carbon innovation in our aviation sector?

Jim Fairlie

I absolutely agree with Brian Whittle that we should be looking to reduce the emissions that come from air travel. The Scottish Government will publish its aviation statement shortly, setting out the actions that we will take to help to achieve our emissions reduction targets and improve our connectivity.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

The latest report from the Government’s climate adviser is clear that there is no credible route to net zero without cutting unnecessary air miles. It is, then, time to shift frequent short-haul travellers away from high-carbon flights and on to low-carbon rail. Does the minister agree that the use of sustainable aviation fuels will not be enough to deliver net zero and that taxation has a key role to play in that transition?

Jim Fairlie

The Scottish Government continues to explore all the options for putting an air departure tax in place, but it must be done in a way that protects the connectivity of the Highlands and Islands and, in particular, the lifeline services that people who live and work in those areas rely on. I repeat that the Scottish Government will publish its aviation statement shortly, setting out the actions that we will take to help to achieve our aviation emissions reduction targets and improve our connectivity.

Transport Links (North-East Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support the improvement of transport links in the north-east of Scotland. (S6O-03374)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

The Government is taking significant action to progress transport projects in the north-east of Scotland even in the face of unprecedented financial challenges. We remain absolutely committed to improving the A96, including by dualling the section from Inverness to Nairn and creating the Nairn bypass. Since 2007, we have spent more than £1 billion on road infrastructure in the north-east, as well as opening two new railway stations and making other investments in sustainable transport infrastructure. My officials continue to support local authorities and regional partners to help them to deliver on the priorities for transport.

Karen Adam

The Campaign for North East Rail’s feasibility study on rerailing Peterhead and Fraserburgh is due to be submitted to the Scottish Government this week. Should that study give us the positive result that we are all hoping for, will the cabinet secretary consider funding a detailed options appraisal to reconnect the significant population of the area to the railway?

Fiona Hyslop

The Government remains committed to investing in our railways, including in the opening of new railway lines and stations, where there are strong business cases for doing so. We are committed to the north-east and we have demonstrated that commitment, not least through our contribution in respect of the rail line work that Karen Adam is pursuing. Any decision to extend funding will depend on the conclusions that emerge from the study, which my officials are yet to receive.

Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

New figures show that just £67,000 has been spent on improvements to the A90 north of Ellon at the Toll of Birness since 2017. Three flashing signs are not enough to prevent the daily accidents and near misses that occur at one of the north east’s most dangerous junctions.

Now that the coalition of chaos with the Greens has been relegated to the scrap heap, will the cabinet secretary finally commit to installing a roundabout at the junction and dualling that deadly road once and for all?

Fiona Hyslop

I note that members, including Douglas Lumsden and others, have continually raised issues around the A90 in particular areas. In my correspondence with a number of people, I have set out the improvements and assessments that are intended at different points.

I am acutely aware of concerns around the area of the A90 that Douglas Lumsden talked about—he should please take that as my consideration. We will continue to look closely at what further improvements can be made.

Road safety is absolutely imperative. I have concerns about some of the issues around road safety statistics. Those are concerns not just here in Scotland; I know from a recent visit to Ireland that there are also concerns about the road safety aspect there. The issue is not only about how we consider improvements to the road itself, but other aspects of road safety that we need to consider, including how people are driving in some of these areas.

Direct Freight Routes (Europe)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on direct freight routes to mainland Europe from Scottish ports. (S6O-03375)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

The Scottish port sector is crucial for the economy, enabling exporters to establish strong and secure links to get their goods to market. More than 250,000 containers are moved annually through the port of Grangemouth, which I visited recently, and 100,000 go through Greenock ocean terminal, along with many other commodities moved through ports across Scotland.

The Scottish Government is supportive of increasing direct freight services to Europe. As Cabinet Secretary for Transport, I have engaged with interested parties, and Transport Scotland officials continue to engage regularly with potential operators and Scotland’s main ports.

Ivan McKee

Direct freight routes are critical for Scotland’s export growth and economic resilience, and they can also reduce our carbon footprint. Most countries take an active interest in developing international trade links. For example, recently, Ireland worked with ports and the logistics sector to add additional routes to mainland Europe following Brexit.

What work is the Scottish Government doing with port operators and the sector to build that resilience and increase export routes for Scottish businesses?

Fiona Hyslop

I point out that, for Ireland, Brexit created opportunities; in Scotland, Brexit did not create opportunities. However, that does not stop us from continuing to develop our work. Ministers and officials are involved in regular discussions with port operators, freight forwarders and hauliers to explore whether Scottish exporters can benefit from more direct and resilient routes to market.

The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union has been hugely disruptive for our exports, but it has not altered the dynamic that any new service from Scotland to the continent would require to be operated on a commercial basis. The UK’s subsidy control regulations ensure that international ferry services across the UK are operated on a commercial basis.

Many exporters move their goods through Scottish ports, and we continue to work with key stakeholders to explore whether there are opportunities to increase that further.

We have a couple of supplementaries.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

There has been a lot of talk over the years about a passenger and freight service from Rosyth to Dunkirk. DFDS seems to be the only player in town in that conversation, and it is very keen to develop that route. However, a number of obstacles seem to stand in its way, some of which involve port infrastructure and Government support.

Will the cabinet secretary write to members to update us on any conversations that the Scottish Government has had with DFDS, the port operator and, of course, our friends on the continent?

Fiona Hyslop

I have engaged directly with Douglas Chapman MP, who has been pursuing the issue, and there have been discussions with DFDS and the relevant ports.

I also wrote to the UK Government, and subsequently met Lord Davies of Gower, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, regarding the issue on 5 February. He confirmed that the UK Government is not in a position to financially support a new service from Rosyth. He highlighted the competitive nature of the ferry sector, which I referred to. Services from UK ports to destinations across Europe have to operate on a commercial basis, and there is a risk of potential litigation should other operators consider such support to be a subsidy. However, that does not stop us from continuing to have our discussions and dialogue and trying to be creative about what can be done.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

Does the minister agree that the privatisation of Scotland’s major ports in the early 1990s was a massive strategic mistake, and will she consider options to establish trust ports in the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth?

Fiona Hyslop

A number of our harbours still exist as trust ports, but I recognise the problems that were created by privatisation in that sector in the 1990s, which has led to the reliance on different private operators and investors and their capability to invest to make sure that good service continues from our harbours. From many of them, it does, but I know that there are criticisms that, in some circumstances, it does not. I hear what Paul Sweeney says, but I am not in a position to make such a commitment. I hear his request, but that is not the Government’s current position.

Public Transport (Motherwell and Wishaw)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is taking to encourage constituents in Motherwell and Wishaw to use public transport. (S6O-03376)

The Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity (Jim Fairlie)

The Scottish Government is committed to sustainable travel and is investing more than £2.5 billion in this financial year to support public transport. We demonstrated that commitment through our peak fare removal pilot, which helps rail passengers across Scotland, including those in Clare Adamson’s constituency, by keeping fares affordable during this time of cost of living challenge.

We are also providing more than £350 million of support through our concessionary travel schemes, which allow free bus travel for young people under the age of 22, disabled people and everyone aged 60 and over. In North Lanarkshire, more than 130,000 concessionary travel card holders benefit from free bus travel and made more than 700,000 journeys using the schemes in March alone.

With delivery partners, we have jointly invested £14.5 million in the Motherwell hub to allow residents in the Motherwell area to enjoy a vastly improved transport hub that greatly and truly encourages seamless and integrated end-to-end journeys.

Clare Adamson

Convenient and accessible bus travel is essential for my constituents in Motherwell and Wishaw and for our environment. I have serious concerns over North Lanarkshire Council’s decision to drastically cut school transport, the implications of that decision for child safety, and the wider potential impact on the local bus network, given that many of those pupils will have concessionary bus passes. Has the Scottish Government engaged in discussions with the local authority on the impacts that that decision could have on commuters who are reliant on public transport and on pupils in North Lanarkshire?

Jim Fairlie

Decisions about the provision of home-to-school transport services rest with local authorities. In 2024-25, North Lanarkshire Council will receive £824.2 million to fund local services. Compared with the 2023-24 budget, that equates to an extra £44.5 million—an additional 5.7 per cent—to support vital day-to-day services.

I am aware of the public’s concerns about the changes to eligibility for free school transport in North Lanarkshire. I have agreed to meet Monica Lennon, who raised the issue in the chamber, and the families concerned, to discuss the interaction between the young persons free bus travel scheme and school transport in Lanarkshire.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

Convenient and available bus travel is a requirement and a need not just in Motherwell and Wishaw but across the whole of Scotland.

In East Lothian, in South Scotland, Prentice Coaches Ltd has contacted me about the Scottish Government—rightly—requiring a fair work policy before considering payment of the network support grant. Prentice Coaches Ltd has paid the real living wage for a significant number of years, but its accreditation dates from September 2023 and Transport Scotland refuses to accept that for a bid for 24 October onwards. Given that that accreditation is live, it seems ridiculous to prevent a very successful company from applying for a network support grant to increase public transport to our constituents.

I had not heard or seen anything about that issue, but I will speak to officials and get back to Martin Whitfield with an answer in writing.

Due to the relevant member’s absence from the chamber earlier in portfolio question time, I am minded not to take question 6. I expect an explanation and an apology for that absence.

Small Vessel Replacement Programme (Procurement)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the procurement process for the small vessel replacement programme. (S6O-03378)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

Ministers are currently considering the outline business case for phase 1 of the small vessel replacement programme, which includes the potential approach to procurement. We expect an update on the outcome in the coming weeks. I know that many members are keen to know that outcome. However, it would not be appropriate for me to comment in detail while the business case is still being reviewed.

Stuart McMillan

The recent launch of the Glen Rosa at the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow was a milestone for the yard. It was also a reminder that the completion of the two vessels nears and that the yard needs to secure future work. I am aware that procurement is the responsibility of Màiri McAllan as Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Net Zero and Energy, but will Ms Hyslop reaffirm her commitment to the yard and its workforce? Will she also confirm that the Scottish Government will aim to ensure that future work comes to the yard?

Fiona Hyslop

I agree that that was a milestone moment for Ferguson Marine and its workers. I point out that, under the current arrangements, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport is responsible for procurement, although, as I think Ms McAllan set out in response to a similar question yesterday, we are collectively considering the business case as it has been presented. Ms McAllan previously declared that

“we will leave no stone unturned when it comes to securing a sustainable future for Ferguson Marine”,—[Official Report, 18 April 2024; c 4.]

as she currently has responsibility for Ferguson Marine as a company.

We know that Ferguson Marine is actively pursuing future work, and we will continue to support it in any way that we can to secure new contracts and a sustainable future for commercial shipbuilding in Scotland.

There are a number of supplementaries, and I will try to take them all.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I hear what the cabinet secretary is saying about making a decision in the coming weeks, but the small ferries have been designed and are ready to go out to tender. Is it her preference to put that work out to tender or to give a direct award? What does “in the coming weeks” mean? Does she have a deadline?

Fiona Hyslop

As Mr Simpson might understand, the Government is currently changing and we are in a transition period. The business case is still being reviewed. He will know that a direct award can be given only in specific cases, and there must be legal certainty that it can be given in such cases. I am not going to state a preference or say what is possible. The Government has to do what is responsible, which requires consideration of a whole load of areas. My priority as transport secretary is to provide what the islanders want.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Until we start to see more new vessels coming into the CalMac fleet, we will basically be holding CalMac hostage to fortune, because maintenance costs for the old fleet are going up. Does the cabinet secretary accept that, until CalMac can get the new ferries on and we start to see a programme for them being put in place, islanders will continually be let down?

Fiona Hyslop

I have always acknowledged that the fleet’s resilience depends on its renewal. That is why we have six major new vessels being delivered before 2025, which will make a considerable difference. However, Alex Rowley is right that we need to have an on-going programme, which is exactly what the small vessel replacement programme is.

We will ensure that deployment can progress as quickly and responsibly as possible, because we want to ensure that islanders have the benefit of the new vessels. It would mean having 13 new vessels in that period, which in itself will help with the improvement of services. However, we have a few hurdles to get over during the next period to ensure that we can do that.

I reassure members that the small vessel replacement programme is a priority—as, I am sure, it will be for the incoming First Minister.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I am struggling to see whether it is a priority, cabinet secretary, because I was asking those questions two years ago. I asked a question about the programme on 5 March, and then yesterday I asked when the scheme would happen. We keep getting answers such as that it will happen “in the coming weeks”. I do not think that that is good enough. Island communities have waited years for the new vessels, and the yard is already becoming extremely nervous about its future. We really need a timescale before the end of this parliamentary year, at the end of June, as to when a decision will be made.

Fiona Hyslop

I appreciate that Kenny Gibson has consistently pursued the programme, which will most definitely benefit the island communities in his constituency just as it will benefit others elsewhere. I can reassure the member—and I hope that he has seen this—that, since I came to office, I have persistently pushed all those involved, whether our own officials or those at Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd, and that a lot of good work has been done. We are now ready to go out to procurement and we have the funding available to do so, as has been indicated by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance.

There are a number of decisions within the Government involving interrelated responsibilities that must be very carefully considered. I want to give certainty to islanders that the additional vessels will be procured and can be delivered to help them. Our island communities deserve to have the services that they need. The businesses in those communities deserve that, and individuals and communities on the islands deserve that.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

There is good will across the chamber to see the Government award the contract to Ferguson Marine, to ensure that a long-term shipbuilding programme can happen in Scotland. If there is an opportunity to get round this situation, it might be for the Government to arrange a competition, but a high social value weighting must be applied to the contract and any shipbuilding activity that takes place under the contract must happen in Scotland. The Government could instantly act as the owner of the shipyard, leasing it to whomever wins the competition, thus achieving the same outcome. Might the cabinet secretary consider that as an alternative?

Fiona Hyslop

I appreciate the member’s suggestion. The outline business case is currently being considered by ministers, and that includes the potential route to procurement. I will update members, but we have been working on a case-by-case basis in the direct awarding of public contracts. Under public procurement rules, that is possible only under strictly limited circumstances. However, we have been tasking officials to consider different ways of achieving what might be of benefit. I would caution members that anything that we do, including what the member is suggesting, has to meet procurement and other legislative requirements.

Borders Railway (Extension)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made on the extension of the Borders railway south to Carlisle. (S6O-03379)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

I am pleased to have recently met the member in Galashiels, together with representatives of the Campaign for Borders Rail, other stakeholders and Scottish Borders Council, which is leading the project on behalf of Borderlands growth deal partners, to discuss progress. The Scottish Government remains committed to providing up to £5 million, via that growth deal, to develop a shared understanding of the benefits, challenges and options to extend the Edinburgh-Tweedbank Borders railway to Carlisle. That will include the undertaking of feasibility work to further develop the business case for the reinstatement of the railway. The council has submitted a proposal, seeking to appoint a project manager to lead the work, and my officials provided their feedback to Scottish Borders Council earlier this week.

Christine Grahame

I do not think that I have a supplementary question, as the cabinet secretary has answered my question. I thank her for her very full answer, and I am glad that we have progressed a bit towards appointing a project manager. I also thank her for the recent upbeat meeting with parties, including my colleague Rachael Hamilton and representatives of Scottish Borders Council. I think that we made progress.

Fiona Hyslop

I very much appreciated meeting members—I acknowledge that Rachael Hamilton was at the meeting—and I thought that the Campaign for Borders Rail set out a very considered position. The group has campaigned for a long time, and such projects do take a long time to secure, as I know from my personal experience in my own constituency. Considering the work that is being done by Scottish Borders Council, I think that there is light here and progress to be made. That will be helpful, as we must ensure that a robust analysis is carried out. I hope that, following the feedback that it has received, Scottish Borders Council can move very quickly to making the appointment.

We will now have a supplementary from the aforementioned Rachael Hamilton.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary and my colleague Christine Grahame for their collegiate approach to meeting representatives of the Campaign for Borders Rail.

Which key metrics will be used to demonstrate value and to inform a business case to extend the Borders railway through towns such as Hawick and Newcastleton? How will the findings of the Scottish Government’s strategic transport projects review 2 influence the ultimate outcome of the study?

Fiona Hyslop

The STPR2 findings were perhaps not necessarily as supportive as those who are campaigning would have wished. However, we have to acknowledge the desire in the Borderlands growth deal to ensure that the opportunity is given. As we know, the environmental, economic and social aspects are really important in all the different and varying projects that are presented to the Government and campaigned for. What struck me in my conversations at that meeting was the importance of connectivity and the ability for young people, in particular, to feel connected not only to their own community but to elsewhere. The balance of social, economic, environmental and other value-for-money factors comes into play when we are considering the Borders rail project and other projects that members have consistently raised with me.