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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, January 19, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Net Zero, Energy and Transport

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. The next item of business is portfolio questions on net zero, energy and transport.

Any member who wishes to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question. Given the level of interest in asking supplementaries today, I make a plea for questions to be as brief as possible, with answers to match.

Question 1 was not lodged.

Glenprosen Estate

To ask the Scottish Government what plans Forestry and Land Scotland has for the Glenprosen estate. (S6O-01789)

The Minister for Environment and Land Reform (Màiri McAllan)

The Glenprosen estate will be managed by Forestry and Land Scotland in accordance with a variety of Scottish Government policy aims to benefit people, nature, the climate and the local economy. By collaborating with the community and neighbouring public and private landowners and managers, FLS and the wider Scottish Government are keen to lead a partnership approach to land management and habitat restoration on a landscape scale across the Angus glens and in the Cairngorms national park.

Graeme Dey

I thank the minister for that answer. More important, I thank Forestry and Land Scotland for its engagement with me, as the local MSP, on the purchase of the estate and the implications for employees, two of whom secured housing tenancies as a result of those discussions, which also helped to lead to a part-time employment opportunity for an estate staff member. It is only by extending that type of engagement to the wider community that we will, I hope, avoid ill-informed commentary of the type that surrounded the sale process.

I ask the minister to assure me that FLS will engage fully with the local community on its plans for the estate and with neighbouring land holdings in relation to deer management.

Màiri McAllan

I am glad to assure Mr Dey that FLS will actively engage with all stakeholders, including, in particular, as I said, the local community and neighbouring landowners. I am pleased to hear that it has already been engaging with him as the constituency MSP. All of that will form part of the land management plan that FLS will develop over the coming year to ensure that the benefits of the acquisition can be afforded to everyone.

As well as the arrangements for employment of those who worked on the former sporting estate and an opportunity for landscape-scale restoration, the acquisition presents opportunities for community engagement, which was limited under the former use, and we can expect employment opportunities from woodland creation, among other pursuits.

I ask Liam Kerr to be brief.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

The purchase of the Glenprosen estate is one of the largest land deals involving settled land for years. However, despite the warm words that we have just heard about future consultation, the £18 million purchase happened entirely off market and behind closed doors with no meetings or consultations with any of the local community.

Given the recent public and media attention about so-called green lairds, does the minister consider that the purchase process was appropriate as regards how deals of public interest are conducted? Can we expect similar secrecy in future public land purchases?

Màiri McAllan

FLS operates in a competitive commercial land market, where its job is to work to optimise benefits for the people of Scotland. It was one of a small number of potentially interested parties that were approached by the agents to bid. Given the enormous strategic opportunity that the former sporting estate presented for Scottish Government objectives, FLS opted to offer.

I have already rehearsed some of the multiple benefits that will come from the purchase. Landscape-scale woodland creation is an opportunity, as are peatland restoration and community involvement.

As Liam Kerr has taken the opportunity to state on the record what the actual sale price was, I hope that he and his colleagues will consider some of the more spurious figures that they have used in the chamber before, which I was unable to correct owing to confidentiality. I will leave it to them to consider their responsibilities for correcting the record.

Network Support Grant Plus

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has carried out an assessment of the potential impact of its decision to end the network support grant plus for bus operators. (S6O-01790)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

It is clear that the current cost of living crisis is making it challenging to deliver bus services in many local communities. That is why the temporary network support grant plus has been extended until 31 March 2023, to help people to afford to travel this winter.

I continue to collaborate with bus operators, through the bus task force, to address the immediate challenges, to help them move to a more sustainable footing and to ensure that the sector is supported by wider policies to improve bus services across Scotland.

Alexander Stewart

After the Scottish National Party-Green Government decided to cut the network support grant plus on 9 October, it did a quick U-turn and reintroduced the scheme in December 2022. However, the scheme has been brought back only until March, and the funding for bus operators has been reduced by 22 per cent. Will the minister confirm the reasons for ending the scheme again and why the funding that is offered has been significantly reduced?

Jenny Gilruth

I am not sure whether Alexander Stewart is aware that the NSG plus grant was always a temporary fund. It was always meant to come to an end at the end of the pandemic. I have made two decisions to extend that funding further: one in June and one, as he alluded, in October. The funding that is coming to an end in March brings us into line with the end of the funding in England and Wales; there is now parity across the United Kingdom on that. That emergency funding was announced during the pandemic to help our bus operators to survive and sustain themselves further as we continued to support that recovery from the pandemic.

It is important to put on record the additional funding that we provide to bus operators. We gave around £210 million during the pandemic, which has ensured that our bus operators are well positioned and at the forefront of the green recovery. We also need to tackle congestion and improve bus journey times. We have awarded £25 million of initial funding for that to 11 bus partnerships covering 28 local authorities across Scotland.

Looking ahead, we will consider any further support that we might be able to provide to the sector. However, these are very challenging times for the Government, as Alexander Stewart will recognise.

I ask Mark Ruskell to be brief.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Despite the huge investment in bus from the Scottish Government, from Covid recovery funding to the extension of concessionary travel, many of our constituents still face poor services. I understand that receipt of the network support grant plus is conditional on operators meeting particular terms and conditions, from freezing fares to protecting service levels. Will the minister provide further information on whether any current recipients of the fund have been penalised for not meeting its conditions?

I ask the minister to be as brief as possible.

Jenny Gilruth

I do not have the detail of what Mark Ruskell has asked for, but I confirm that a freeze on fares is a condition of participation in the NSG plus extension. I will be happy to write to him with the detail that he seeks.

Ferry Contracts

To ask the Scottish Government what economic analysis it considered prior to awarding ferry contracts reportedly worth £115 million to a shipyard in Turkey. (S6O-01791)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

The long-term economic benefits of that investment will be derived from the improvements to the ferry services for Tarbert on Harris and Lochmaddy on North Uist. Increases in vehicle capacity, of more than 40 per cent in summer and more than 10 per cent in winter, will support sustainable growth on our islands. The vessels will also provide significant benefits in reliability and resilience across the wider west coast routes.

In line with the relevant procurement legislation, the contract was awarded following an open tendering process by Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd as the procuring authority. The bid that was received from the yard represented best value for money in quality and price.

Paul Sweeney

The glaring omission in that answer was about the impact on the Scottish shipbuilding industry.

When I asked a written question about what weighting is applied to foreign shipbuilders as against domestic shipbuilders, the Scottish Government told me that it scores foreign and domestic shipbuilders in the same way on social value and other criteria. Therefore, an apprenticeship that is created in Turkey weighs the same as an apprenticeship that is created in Greenock. That is absurd, given that analysis shows that every pound that is spent on domestic shipbuilding returns a 35 per cent benefit to the local economy and supply chains in Scotland.

Does the minister not realise how foolish that approach is and that continuing with it will result in the terminal decline of shipbuilding in Scotland, given that most foreign shipbuilders are heavily subsidised by their Governments and are therefore able to submit bids that domestic shipbuilders are simply unable to compete with?

Jenny Gilruth

Paul Sweeney touched on a number of points in his question, and I recognise that he has also asked several written parliamentary questions, which, I believe, I have responded to.

When it comes to the vessels themselves, the relevant procurement legislation has been adhered to. To my mind, the most important challenge at the current time is in bringing that additional capacity to the Western Isles, in particular, and to CalMac Ferries. We have to provide additional capacity.

I am proud that, in the past year alone, we have been able to confirm that there will be two new additional vessels for Islay. We have the additional vessel on the Oban to Craignure route—MV Loch Frisa. At the end of last year, I confirmed the additional vessels to which the member has alluded. The bid that was received from that yard represented the best value for money in quality and price.

The two vessels that are in construction at the yard, which I announced earlier last year, are progressing well and remain on time and within budget. CMAL’s recent confirmation of signing the contract for the additional two vessels, at the same design specification and with the same yard, follows the recent procurement exercise to which the member has alluded—but that also includes a full builder’s refund guarantee.

The most important point in all of this is that we deliver that extra capacity to CalMac to allow it to provide a more sustainable service to the Western Isles, in particular.

There are two supplementary questions, but they will need to be brief, as will the answers.

Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

I remind Labour members that it was the SNP that took action to save Ferguson’s shipyard from closure.

As the minister has just highlighted, the new ferries will increase capacity and resilience for islanders. The investment is therefore welcome news for islanders and businesses. Does the minister share my view that, instead of seeking to score political points, we should all focus on the real differences that the vessels will make to the lives of the people who rely on them?

Jenny Gilruth

I absolutely do. Ms Minto is right to highlight our intention in respect of the vessels and the benefits that they will bring to our island communities and the businesses that they will serve. The challenges have been well rehearsed in the chamber in recent months, so we should all welcome this investment from the Scottish Government.

Consider the progress made in the past 12 months: we now have four additional major vessels on order or under construction, in addition to the two major vessels under construction at Port Glasgow. The Scottish Government remains absolutely committed to improving our lifeline ferry fleet and better meeting the needs of our island communities.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

If there is one thing of which the minister should not be proud—as she put it—it is the construction of ferries for the Western Isles. She should be ashamed of what has happened rather than proud of it.

Were there any clauses in the contract with Cemre Shipyard stipulating that Scottish businesses should form part of the supply chain?

Jenny Gilruth

I answered the question in relation to procurement, which is the wider point of Mr Rennie’s question, in my response to Mr Sweeney’s question.

In relation to Ferguson’s more generally, we know that the yard is actively pursuing opportunities for future vessel contracts. As a shareholder and as a Government, we will do all that we can to help the yard to secure those opportunities, but decisions on what vessel contracts to bid for are a matter for the yard management and the board itself.

Strategic Transport Projects Review 2 (Rail in South Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government how the strategic transport projects review 2 will improve rail infrastructure, journey times and rail connectivity across the South Scotland region. (S6O-01792)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

A number of the STPR2 recommendations make a direct contribution to improving rail in South Scotland. They focus on infrastructure to provide access for all at railway stations, decarbonising the network, high-speed cross-border rail enhancements, consideration of the upgrade or relocation of Stranraer rail station, and rail freight terminals and facilities. All of those will contribute to meeting the aims of protecting the climate and improving lives through better transport connectivity.

Emma Harper

STPR2 makes a commitment to improve journey times, specifically on the Glasgow-Carlisle line. Can the minister comment further on how that commitment will be taken forward and on timescales for the changes being made? Improving that service from the current two-hour journey from Dumfries to Glasgow will allow more people to rely on public transport across the region and will attract people to Dumfries and Galloway, because the stations in the region could be key commuter lines to Glasgow.

Jenny Gilruth

I very much agree with the sentiment in Emma Harper’s question. The long-term plans for our rail network in Scotland, including in South Scotland, are set out in STPR2, which was published in December last year.

The recommendations for future rail investment focus on decarbonisation of the remainder of the network and on reducing emissions from road transport by getting more freight and passengers on to rail. STPR2 will help to deliver the vision, priorities and outcomes that are set out in the national transport strategy. It will also provide improved rail infrastructure, rail journey times—which the member alluded to—and rail connectivity across South Scotland.

The delivery plan, which will give the further detail that Ms Harper has sought today, will be published later this year. I believe that the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport will be making a statement to Parliament next week on that very matter.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

After years of waiting and hundreds of thousands of pounds of public funds being spent, the long-awaited STPR2 report leaves us none the wiser about what investment the Scottish Government will commit to transport infrastructure in South Scotland. For the sake of all those who live in the south-west, when can we expect any details on actual projects for an area of Scotland that is already ignored by the Scottish Government, and when can we expect the transport infrastructure to be brought up to an acceptable standard?

As I mentioned in my response to Ms Harper, the delivery plan will be set out in the coming months, and the cabinet secretary will make a statement to Parliament next week.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

During budget consideration, the Deputy First Minister said that a

“six-month pilot ... will remove peak-time rail fares”.—[Official Report, 15 December 2022; c 69.]

It turns out that that will affect only some peak rail fares. Can the minister tell us from which rail routes in South Scotland peak fares will be removed, because it is clear that it will not be all of them?

My understanding is that that will apply to all routes. Details will be forthcoming. I await further advice from my officials in Transport Scotland on how the scheme will operate.

Public Transport Use (East Kilbride)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to help increase public transport use in East Kilbride. (S6O-01793)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

The Scottish Government is investing more than £100 million in the East Kilbride rail project, which is enabling more diesel trains to be replaced across Scotland and encouraging greater modal shift. The electrification of the line from Glasgow to Barrhead is under way, alongside the relocation of Hairmyres station, whereby the plan is to create a new fully accessible transport interchange, which will give the local community the option to walk, wheel or travel by bus to the station.

In addition, we are supporting bus use through the under-22s free bus travel scheme, which means that around half of Scotland’s population can now travel by bus for free.

Collette Stevenson

Can the minister provide an update on the East Kilbride rail enhancements and set out the benefits that the Clyde metro will bring to the town? Will she outline the local engagement that is taking place on those matters?

Jenny Gilruth

For East Kilbride, Network Rail advance works have been undertaken at a number of locations, including the successful removal last weekend of a redundant footbridge at the site of the proposed new Hairmyres station.

We continue to make good progress with the East Kilbride business case, including a well-received event for members that was held in the Parliament late last year. As the project develops and the full programme of works is finalised, Network Rail will intensify its activities and will continue to work closely with communities, MSPs and other stakeholders along the line of the route in order to keep them informed.

Work on the Clyde metro has been undertaken through the 2022 scoping programme-level business case. That is being undertaken collaboratively, led by Transport Scotland and its partner, which are Glasgow City Council and Strathclyde Partnership for Transport. A delivery plan will be prepared following completion of the programme-level business case, and engagement will be key to that business case as it progresses.

We have a couple of brief supplementaries.

The people of East Kilbride, along with me and, I am sure, Collette Stevenson, want to know when work is actually going to start on the East Kilbride line and when it will be complete.

Jenny Gilruth

In my response to Ms Stevenson, I alluded to the on-going engagement with Network Rail. It is important that Mr Simpson too, as a local MSP, continues with that engagement. I think that he met Network Rail very recently about the project.

With regard to the timescales for the decarbonisation work, I am happy to write to the member with an update on those if they have changed in any way, shape or form in the past few months, although to my knowledge they have not.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

At a previous portfolio question time, the minister gave a commitment to ask Transport Scotland officials to compile data on the number of bus service cancellations and the reasons for those cancellations. Can the minister update us on that matter, and tell us whether and when the Government expects to know the full extent of bus service cancellations in Scotland?

Jenny Gilruth

I did commit to ask my officials in Transport Scotland to provide that data. I have not yet received it, but I will be happy to publish it as and when I receive it in order to give a national picture of cancellations, because I very much recognise the on-going challenges that we face in that respect, to which Neil Bibby alluded.

Fuel Poverty (North Ayrshire)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address fuel poverty in North Ayrshire. (S6O-01794)

The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport (Michael Matheson)

We are tackling fuel poverty throughout Scotland, with £119 million allocated this year to provide heat energy efficiency and fuel-poverty measures to fuel-poor households. That includes funding for our area-based scheme, which is delivered in partnership with local authorities. Since 2013, North Ayrshire Council has received more than £13.2 million in ABS funding, which has enabled energy-efficiency upgrades to be made to more than 2,700 homes.

This year, the council has been awarded £1.8 million to target homes in five fuel-poor areas for installation of external wall insulation and to help to support 100 fuel-poor homes to receive solar photovoltaic systems

Ruth Maguire

I have constituents in housing association properties that require work to make them more energy efficient. The landlord tells me that it has no funds for capital improvements. My constituents’ wages are stagnant and all their bills are going up year on year, including rent, which has seen a rise of 7 per cent this year.

What guidance can the cabinet secretary give on what funding is available to housing associations, whether it is in grants or loans, for such work? Further, what advice can the Scottish Government give to support my constituents in housing association homes?

Michael Matheson

The schemes that apply to housing associations are the area-based schemes to which I just referred. Housing associations that are seeking to undertake energy efficiency programmes should be looking to engage with the warmer homes Scotland scheme on the range of funding that is available to them to support installation of energy efficiency measures in properties.

A9 Dualling

To ask the Scottish Government when the final design for the dualling of the A9 Perth to Inverness road between the Pass of Birnam and the Tay crossing will be published. (S6O-01795)

The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport (Michael Matheson)

The design work for that challenging section of the A9 is continuing, following a community co-creative process. That process has helped us to form an extremely positive working relationship with the local community and to broaden the vision for dualling that section of the A9. An announcement on the preferred route option is expected to be made in the coming months, after which the preferred option will be further refined, developed and assessed before commencement of the statutory process.

Murdo Fraser

The community in Dunkeld and Birnam, and indeed other users of the A9, have been waiting eight years to see a finalised design for the section. I know that there has been extensive engagement with the local community, but that ceased many months ago and we still have not seen a finalised plan, which we were expecting by the end of last year.

Can the minister be more specific about when exactly a finalised design will be published? Perhaps more important, when can we expect the works to be completed for the dual carriageway on that section?

Michael Matheson

Murdo Fraser will recognise that, having gone through a co-creative process with the local community and having identified their preferred route option, we have to compare that option against other potential route options. There are three other options to consider alongside the one that is supported by the local community. That assessment work is on-going. Once it has been completed by officials, we should be in a position to set out our preferred route option. As I mentioned in my original response, we will then communicate that. I hope to be able to do that in the coming months.

The final aspect is in relation to the procurement process. Before the work can be undertaken, we have to go through the orders process. Obviously, that is a statutory process. Once it has been completed, we will look at the procurement process for that particular part of the A9.

Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

Even now, the Transport Scotland website says that the dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness will completed by 2025. If that happens, I will go out and purchase a hat in order to be able to eat it.

Seriously, do we not owe an apology to the people of the Highlands and of Scotland because we will not achieve that target? Shall we not come clean? Above all, when will we bring forward a fresh timetable and the full details of how we will implement one of the longest-standing pledges we have ever made?

Michael Matheson

I recognise Mr Ewing’s long-standing interest in the issue. I want to reassure him of the Government’s long-standing and on-going commitment to dualling the A9.

A number of factors are being taken into account at the present moment in relation to the procurement process for the next section that we are looking to dual, and that process has been impacted by Covid. It has also been quite significantly impacted by the very significant levels of construction-cost inflation that are being experienced. Because of some of the economic challenges that we now have, we are also having to look at the procurement approach that we take in relation to this particular project.

We are looking at taking forward further procurement in the months ahead. I can also reassure Mr Ewing that we are looking at the forward timetable for the programme in the years ahead.

That concludes portfolio questions. We will briefly pause to allow the members on the front benches to change before we move to the next item of business.