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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, January 26, 2023

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Holocaust Memorial Day 2023, Portfolio Question Time, Strategic Transport Projects Review 2, Budget 2023-24 (Committees’ Pre-budget Scrutiny), Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland (Appointment), Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Strategic Transport Projects Review 2

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a statement by Michael Matheson on the second strategic transport projects review. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


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

I am very pleased to provide an update on the second strategic transport projects review. The final report was published on 8 December last year, and it marked the culmination of more than three years of work by Transport Scotland and its consultants. I express my gratitude to stakeholders across the country, particularly those in local and regional authorities, for their input to the process since the outset, and also to the public, and indeed our young people of Scotland, who provided an excellent range of entries for the schools competition. It was a great pleasure to meet and discuss the review with some of the pupils from Musselburgh grammar school and Stoneyhill primary school here in Parliament last month.

The final publication of STPR2 represents a key milestone for transport planning in Scotland. In it, we set out a 20-year framework for capital investment to drive the change that we need to reach our ambitious—and essential—net zero goals. The era of catering for unconstrained growth in private car use is now well and truly over. The majority of the recommendations directly contribute to achieving a reduction in both emissions and dependency on the private car. Although we will not be able to deliver them all immediately, or all at once, I am pleased to say that we are already making progress on 38 of the 45 recommendations. Right from the outset, collaboration, stakeholder engagement and public consultation have been fundamental and have been at the very heart of the three-year process, from gathering problems and opportunities to the detailed appraisal undertaken as part of the later stages of that work.

Following publication of the draft report, which I announced to the chamber a year ago, there was a statutory public consultation. The 45 recommendations had been informed and tested throughout several previous rounds of engagement. We were therefore confident that the final consultation would be on refinement and affirmation of those recommendations rather than suggestions for wholesale change. Of course, I was encouraged that that was the outcome. The consultation included 30 information sessions and attracted 424 responses. That invaluable feedback was considered in detail and fed directly into the production of the suite of final reports.

I will now touch on what STPR2 recommends. Four key areas of investment will help us to make truly transformational changes to how we travel in Scotland. They are: decarbonising public transport; improving active travel infrastructure; improving connectivity in our rural and island communities; and establishing mass transit systems in our biggest city regions.

In the first such area we are pressing on with our plans to decarbonise Scotland’s rail network and are building on the £62 million awarded to bus operators last February for the acquisition of zero-emission buses. We are already supporting the implementation of our vision for Scotland’s electric vehicle charging through the £60 million public electric vehicle infrastructure fund, which will draw in commercial investment so that in future the charging network will work for everyone.

Our second key area is providing greater opportunities for people to walk, wheel or cycle. We want to work with local authorities to deliver ambitious active travel infrastructure projects. Our investment in that mode has risen significantly in recent years: from £40 million in 2017-18 to a record £150 million for 2022-23.

Our third focus is on improved connectivity in our rural and island communities. As well as significant investment in port infrastructure and strategic road connections, our commitments to our islands include investment in new vessels for Arran, Islay and the Skye triangle. The review also recommends the further investigation of potential fixed-link connections at the Sound of Harris and the Sound of Barra, and between Mull and the Scottish mainland.

Our fourth key area centres on delivering transformational change in public transport infrastructure. At its core, we plan to transform public transport across the Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow city regions by introducing in each a new mass transit system that will offer a real alternative to the private car. Elsewhere, we will invest in rail, particularly between our major cities, and offer buses far greater priority on many routes in urban centres across Scotland.

I know that some people will be disappointed by the lack of inclusion in the 45 recommendations of their favoured local rail or road projects such as the extension of the Borders railway or the construction of a rail line north of Aberdeen to Fraserburgh and Peterhead. However, it is also important to stress that there remains a route to consider projects not included in the recommendations, on the basis of their demonstrating a robust business case, and subject to appropriate funding being available.

Although I have been at pains to note that none of the recommendations involves increasing capacity for cars on our roads, feedback from stakeholders has stressed the importance of a reliable and resilient strategic road network. Recommendations for our strategic roads focus on safety, climate change adaptation and resilience.

For safety improvements there will be a primary, but not exclusive, focus on rural sections, with exact locations to be determined by further and on-going work. Some recommendations include essential maintenance and upgrades, not least for the south-west, where measures have been identified to address long-standing calls for targeted improvements on the A75 and the A77—topics that have often been discussed in the chamber.

The recommendations that I have described represent an ambitious plan for investment for the next 20 years. However, 20 years is a long time, and it is important that we remain agile in order to address needs that may arise or become more prominent. We had intended to publish a delivery plan alongside STPR2 to set out how and when it is envisaged that each of the recommendations will be delivered. However, given the fiscal and budgetary uncertainty over the past few months, that has been neither practical nor possible.

The fact that we are constrained by reliance on the UK Government for capital grant allocations, as well as our limited capital borrowing powers, has added to the uncertainty. All that has resulted in a decision to take more time to create a fully informed and accurate delivery plan. The plan will continue to be developed over the coming months, informed by the draft budget for the coming financial year, with the intention that it will be published in the spring.

I am very proud of the vast amount of work that has gone into STPR2, and of the direction in which it is taking us as a nation. That is reflected in the supportive and positive comments that we have received from a number of stakeholders, including Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, Sustrans and ScotRail.

We know that change will not be easy for people to make; that is why the review is focused on creating the infrastructure, on connectivity and on delivering the transport modes that will help people change how, why and when they travel. Transforming Scotland’s transport requires a cohesive national effort and a repositioning of the type of transport investment that the Government makes. By doing that, however, we can deliver significant and lasting benefits for the people and businesses in Scotland, creating a Scotland that is less polluted, less congested and healthier.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. It would be helpful if those members who wish to ask a question were to press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement, which should have been delivered when STPR2 was released at the end of last year. The document did not set the heather alight then, and his statement certainly will not have done so today. We have been given no idea when key routes that are vital to the economy and to road safety, such as the A9, the A96, the A75 and the A77, will be upgraded. That is what people want to know.

The cabinet secretary mentioned the Glasgow metro system, which may extend to where I live, in East Kilbride. I do not think that there is a cat in hell’s chance of it ever happening, but if my natural cynicism is misplaced and I am wrong, what is the timescale?

The cabinet secretary mentioned further investigation of potential fixed-link connections to various islands. If locals want that, is he today committing to such links?

Finally, on rural transport, rural residents tell me that bus operators are shifting their older diesel buses from city routes to rural routes. What reassurance can the cabinet secretary give that electrification of buses will extend to all areas?

Michael Matheson

I will try to deal with a couple of those issues. The member referred to four areas of the trunk road network: the A9, the A96, the A75 and the A77. He may not be aware of this, but I would have thought that he, as the transport spokesperson for the Conservative Party, would recognise that the A9 and the A96 are not within the scope of STPR2, because they are part of the previous STPR process.

Now that I have pointed that out to the member, he will recognise that we are—[Interruption.]

Members, members. We need to listen to the cabinet secretary.

Michael Matheson

The member will recognise that we are already carrying out the review of the A96. I am sure that he will eventually get a grip of his brief on these matters.

On the timescale for the Glasgow metro, given that he says that he is sceptical about the project ever being undertaken, it might come as a surprise to the member to learn that the leadership team, which has already been brought together to work on the development plan for the Glasgow metro and is chaired by Transport Scotland, is already taking that forward. Further work will be set out over the course of the creation of the business case for the metro during this year.

On the island fixed links, the STPR2 documents—which I am sure the member has taken the time to read—say that we will take forward further investigations into the fixed-links options for the islands that have been referred to, and will consider them against alternative options such as the existing ferry links, the benefits to public transport and the cost to the taxpayer.

I recognise the member’s final point, about older buses. Much of the electrification of the bus network that we have sought has happened in our large urban areas, although in Aberdeenshire there has been an expansion of—I think—the Stagecoach electric bus network into some of the rural areas. I expect that, as we see further roll-out in support of the decarbonisation of the bus network, we will see more of that in our more rural areas. However, it is critically important that we have the right grid infrastructure for the electrification necessary to support the greater use of electric buses in our rural areas, including in the member’s region.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. The track record of this Government and cabinet secretary on transport projects is one of overpromising and underdelivering. With the STPR2, the cabinet secretary might surpass himself by underpromising and underdelivering.

On new ferries and new trains, we have a strategy that is years late, and there is still no sign of a delivery plan or budget. However, what communities already know is that there will be no dualling of the A9 by 2025, as promised in the previous review, and probably no dualling of the A96. With regard to this review, none of the modest projects planned for the A75 or A77 will happen in this parliamentary session, and a rail link to Glasgow airport has never been so far away. The cabinet secretary knows full well that the routes for the Borders railway and rail in the north-east, which he claims to be outwith STPR2, have no meaningful budget.

Given this Government’s record on delivering transport budgets over budget and overdue, why should any community believe the cabinet secretary when he finally gets around to telling us when the projects in STPR2 will be delivered? What will he do this time to avoid the failures of the past?

Michael Matheson

The member made reference in particular to the Glasgow airport rail link. He might not be aware that the Glasgow metro scheme involves a connection to the airport, which is part of the recommendations in STPR2.

On the work that has been undertaken, I can reassure the member that it had been our intention to publish the delivery plan alongside STPR2. However, the budgetary uncertainty that was created by the United Kingdom Government in the autumn of last year has delayed that whole process, which has meant that we have had to delay taking forward the delivery plan work.

I assure that member that, as we undertake that work over the next couple of months, alongside our budget process, we will do so in a way that helps to give as much indication as possible of the timeframes for the various projects that are set out in the STPR2 plan for the next 20 years.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

STPR2 makes a commitment to improve journey times on the Glasgow to Carlisle rail line, and the cabinet secretary rightly mentions the A75 and A77 arterial routes, which need improvement based on safety and efficiency concerns. Can the cabinet secretary comment further on the process by which the Glasgow-Carlisle line will be improved and say when we will see shovels in the ground to take forward the recommendations for the A75 and A77?

Michael Matheson

I recognise the member’s longstanding interest in transport upgrades in the south-west of Scotland, including on the A75 and A77. Recommendation 40 in STPR2 is about improving access to Stranraer and the port of Cairnryan. That is part of the rail investment programmes that we are looking to progress as part of the delivery plan that will be taken forward over the next couple of months. The STPR2 delivery plan will also provide details of the work that we intend to take forward on the A75 and the A77 as part of our wider capital spending programme.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

A 2017 report said that, unless a roundabout was built at the Toll of Birness, there would be no safe gaps to join the A90 by 2023. Since then, the Government has spent just £67,000 on safety measures at the Toll of Birness. This week, there was yet another accident at that notorious junction.

In April 2019, the then transport minister said that upgrading the A90 between Ellon and Peterhead would be part of STPR2. Last June, the current transport minister said that safety work at the Toll of Birness can now be undertaken as part of the wider STPR2. However, the Toll of Birness is absent from STPR2. Will the cabinet secretary commit to doing what is needed, or does STPR2 mark the end for road safety at the Toll of Birness?

Michael Matheson

My thoughts are, of course, with anyone who has been involved in a road traffic accident at that particular junction. I am aware of the long-standing concerns and issues that have been raised about that particular junction and that some additional safety measures have been introduced, including the vehicle-activated signs. However, the provisions relating to improvements on key parts of our trunk road network are covered by recommendation 30 in STPR2, which is about focusing on the trunk road and motorway safety provision. That could include areas throughout the network, including on the A90. Therefore, there is provision in the STPR for specific areas.

However, that will be taken forward against all the other areas across the trunk road network that require improvements, particularly where safety improvements are needed. Which improvements should be progressed and within what timeframe will be evaluated.

I reassure Liam Kerr that, where there are requirements to improve safety on the trunk road network, STPR2 and recommendation 30 make provision for their being able to take place.

Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary mentioned the commitment to examine the case for fixed links on the Sound of Barra and the Sound of Harris. Aside from the obvious benefits, there is another incentive, given the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s reclassification of those waters and the potential implications for the type of replacement vessels that will eventually be required. Can the cabinet secretary give an update on that aspect of the issue?

Michael Matheson

I am, of course, aware of the need to consider how we can replace the vessels on the western isles. For that reason, STPR2 made a recommendation to undertake further work on developing a business case to better understand what the benefits, costs and challenges associated with providing fixed links across the Sound of Harris and the Sound of Barra would be, in part for the reasons that Alasdair Allan referred to. That process will involve evaluating the cost benefits of a fixed link against continuing with the existing ferry network and how that would impact on the public purse. As we consider that process, it will, of course be important to engage with the local communities to allow them to express their views on the impact that there would be on their respective areas.

The timescale for taking that forward will be set out in the delivery plan in the coming months, so that Alasdair Allan and his constituents will have a clear understanding of the process that will be taken forward in considering potential fixed links.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

In a recent article in The Herald, the leader of Glasgow City Council called for “bold leadership” and “detailed progress” on a Clyde metro project. She will not find that in today’s statement or in the review documents, despite the fine words and laudable aims. Instead, there is a vague recommendation to continue to work with regional partners. That feels like history repeating itself from a Government that has overpromised and underdelivered for the west of Scotland. Given that the Scottish National Party has scrapped three proposals to link Glasgow airport with the city centre via Paisley over the past 16 years and that it seems incapable of delivering such a link, why should anyone believe that the Government is serious about a Clyde metro project?

Michael Matheson

I thought that that was a very good article by Susan Aitken, who highlighted the considerable work that Glasgow City Council has taken forward with some of its regional partners in the connectivity commission and the ambitious proposals that they have set out in that. That demonstrates great leadership from Glasgow City Council, and Susan Aitken in particular, and I thought that the article reflected their great ambitions. I am sure that Neil Bibby will agree with me on that.

One of the key recommendations that came directly from the connectivity commission is in STPR2. That is the recommendation for the Clyde metro, which is a hugely ambitious, multibillion-pound investment programme to improve connectivity right across the Glasgow City region. That will improve connectivity not only between towns but within key areas where transport connectivity is poor, particularly in some of our lower-income communities. The plan is to look at how we can connect such communities much more effectively through the Clyde metro proposals, which are one of the key recommendations in STPR2.

Given that the member thinks that the Clyde metro proposal is a hugely ambitious programme, I am sure that he will recognise that the fact that it is in STPR2 demonstrates just how ambitious STPR2 actually is.

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

One of the objectives of STPR2 is to improve safety and resilience. I take on board the cabinet secretary’s comments about the A96 dualling being a commitment of the previous strategic transport projects review. However, it is the biggest transport concern of my constituents in Aberdeenshire East, thousands of whom expressed safety concerns in the A96 review consultation. A great deal of scoping and planning work has already been undertaken, in the last parliamentary session, so my constituents will be expecting me to ask—once the review is complete, is there scope for the project to be reactivated and for the dualling to be completed?

Michael Matheson

I fully recognise Gillian Martin’s long-standing interest in representing her constituents on issues relating to the A96. The member will be aware that the public consultation and the initial appraisal work reports on the A96 corridor review were published at the end of December. We are now pushing forward with the next phase, which is further detailed work to inform the remaining stages of the review. Those will include a robust appraisal of the 16 retained options, including a climate compatibility assessment, with outcomes expected to be announced in the first half of this year. That will then be put out for final public consultation before a final outcome is decided. I assure the member that the transport minister will ensure that there is an opportunity for members of the Scottish Parliament who represent the areas affected by the A96 to feed into that process.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I thank the Presiding Officer for dispensation to leave early today. I also thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of the statement.

Last week, Fair Isle received good news of a successful bid for UK levelling up funding to replace its ageing lifeline ferry to mainland Shetland. STPR2 does not look at internal ferry services, which—despite what the cabinet secretary says about focusing on improved connectivity in rural and island communities—are rapidly ageing, with some in the northern isles needing imminent replacement.

I also note the positive responses in the STPR2 consultation to fixed links for Shetland. Will the cabinet secretary therefore ensure that the Scottish Government now works with local authorities and interested groups to progress feasibility studies into such projects for Shetland and to pursue local solutions with fellow island groups?

Michael Matheson

I am sure that the member recognises that a significant amount of investment goes into supporting our island authorities to deliver the local ferry network. I think that there has been investment in the region of £130 million over the past five years alone to support and sustain the network. Ferry services are not within the scope of STPR2, because they are local services in the same way as other transport provision is in other local authorities. Nevertheless, we continue to look at how we can support local authorities, including Shetland Council, and work with them to improve connectivity and resilience in the transport sector within our island communities. Of course, we will continue to invest in our northern isles services as we look to make sure that those who live in the northern isles, such as Shetland, have resilient ferry services.

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

I cannot say that I am impressed with the description in STPR2 of the Glasgow to Carlisle line, which runs through my constituency, as a “diversionary” route. It is key to the people of Ayrshire and beyond that the same level of investment is afforded to the line, so that more communities along the line can benefit from the economic and social advantages that rail travel brings—which are currently being enjoyed elsewhere in Scotland—such as electrification schemes and the reopening of local stations. Can the cabinet secretary give us some positive news for local people and confirm whether the line will be electrified in the near, short, medium or long term?

Michael Matheson

The member will be aware of the on-going work between Glasgow Central station and Barrhead—the electrification programme is being taken forward and is due to be completed, if I recall correctly, by the end of this year. In the next control period, we will be looking at further electrification of the network, including, potentially, down to the member’s constituency.

As the member will be aware, we have given a commitment to decarbonise our rail network by 2035, which will involve looking at decarbonising routes and the electrification of routes across the network. However, any electrification programme must take into account new technologies that might come on to the market, such as hydrogen fuel cell-powered trains, which have the potential to operate on some parts of our existing rail network as well.

I assure the member that the route to his constituency will be part of our wider programme of work, over the next 10 years, to decarbonise Scotland’s rail network.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

The cabinet secretary really has a nerve to stand up and regurgitate the same old lines—the same empty rhetoric—that we heard when he visited Stranraer more than four years ago. The people of the south-west, from every political background, are sick of the reviews, the reports and the broken commitments from this SNP Government, which has delivered only 0.05 per cent of the recent national infrastructure spend to the south-west.

Before the cabinet secretary reminds us, I say that we are all aware that infrastructure is devolved, but we also know that the UK Government has provided £5 million for the A75, which is on the table to support a business plan that would rightly see the two Governments work together on a route that is of huge importance to the whole of the UK.

Will the cabinet secretary put his constitutional grievance to one side, if he is capable of doing that? No one in Galloway cares where the money comes from. When will the residents of Crocketford and Springholm be able to sleep safely in their beds, and when will they get the bypass? If the cabinet secretary wants to be honest and serious about delivering, he should tell us now when it will happen.

Michael Matheson

I recognise the member’s long-standing interest in the issues on behalf of his constituents. He has often made the case very forcefully for investment in the south-west of Scotland. However, I am not entirely sure whether that £5 million figure is entirely correct, from the engagement that we have been having with the UK Government. It turns out that that so-called £5 million is £2 million—potentially £2 million—and that what it is to be used for is dependent on some feasibility work. Therefore, it is important that we are accurate and that there is honesty around this matter. I am sorry, but it appears that the member’s figure is not correct—[Interruption.]

Can we hear the cabinet secretary, please?

Michael Matheson

I am correcting the member because his figure is not correct, from the engagement that my colleague Jenny Gilruth has had with the UK Government on the issue. We are seeking further clarity on that.

As I set out in STPR2, there is a very clear commitment to seeing upgrades on both the A75 and the A77. As I mentioned, the details on taking forward the various recommendations that are set out in STPR2 will be set out in the delivery plan, and the delivery plan will be brought forward in the coming months. Sadly, it is delayed due to the challenges that we have had with the UK Government over the autumn period, which have had a direct impact on the—[Interruption.] Look, it is just a fact.

Excuse me—could we have less sedentary chit-chat? We need to hear the speaker who has the floor, which is the cabinet secretary.

Michael Matheson

It is just a fact that the budget process was delayed by the UK Government, and that had a direct impact on our budgetary preparation process, which then had an impact on our being able to take forward our delivery plan. Had that not happened, I would be in a position to publish the delivery plan alongside STPR2.

I hope that the member will take the reassurance that I have given him about our commitment to take that work forward over the next couple of months, so that he can see the detail and the timeframe.

I can squeeze in the last two questions from members who have asked to speak if they are brief questions and we have answers to match.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I welcome the STPR and the vision behind it, but I want to speak up for Scotland’s strategic road network. One of the biggest and most costly impacts on our road network comes from lorries, and massive climate emissions come from lorries as well. How can STPR support a modal shift from road freight to rail freight?

Michael Matheson

It is important that we help to increase and expand rail freight. One of our recommendations in STPR2 is to look at increasing movements of freight on our rail network. As part of our grant scheme, we have provided some £25 million in ring-fenced funding specifically for rail freight for the period up to 2024. We are seeing the benefits of that being delivered right now, with the new Highland Spring rail freight facility at Blackford, which will remove at least 10 million lorry miles from Scotland’s roads in the first 10 years. We want to see more of that, which is why STPR2 includes a recommendation to look at how we can increase the level of rail freight in the Scottish network.

Will improvements to the reliability of rural roads, such as the B829, be considered as part of STPR2, in order to improve accessibility and encourage economic growth in rural communities?

Michael Matheson

If I am correct, that is a road to Stronachlachar from Aberfoyle, in the member’s constituency. It is a road that I have been very familiar with over many years. It has had many challenges with overflooding and so on over an extended period of time. However, it is a local road, so it is the responsibility of the local authority, and therefore any plans to take forward upgrading work on that particular road would be a matter for the local authority.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes the minister’s statement. I apologise to those additional members who asked to put a question—obviously, we have run out of time.

There will be a short pause before we move on to the next item of business.