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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 5, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 05 September 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Doors Open Days 2019, Portfolio Question Time, Drug-related Deaths, European Union Exit (No Deal), Points of Order, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Cycling Action Plan

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its progress implementing the cycling action plan for Scotland. (S5O-03481)

I gave a full statement to Parliament on 18 June 2019, updating it on the progress in implementing the cycling action plan for Scotland. Cycling Scotland is undertaking a review of progress on the cycling action plan 2020, which will be reported on once it has concluded. At the same time, Cycling Scotland is working with other partners on the actions, outcomes and priorities that will be needed beyond 2020, which will play a key part in delivering the greener, safer, happier and healthier Scotland that we all want to see.

The plan in question sets out a target for 10 per cent of everyday journeys to be completed by bike by 2020, but the most recent figures show that just 1.5 per cent of journeys are being taken by bike and only 3 per cent of people travel to work in this way. Can the cabinet secretary explain how he will manage to secure an almost sevenfold increase in the next year, or will he furnish Parliament with a revised, more realistic target?

As I set out in my statement to Parliament back in June, there are areas where we have made progress but there are certain areas where we have not made sufficient progress, which means that the overall target of 10 per cent will not be achieved in the timescale that was set out in the action plan. That is why Cycling Scotland is undertaking a review of the action plan, to consider what further measures we need to take in order to address the issues. Once we have its report, we will be in a position to determine what further measures we need to put in place in order to drive this area of policy forward.

The member will be aware that, in the two previous budgets, we have doubled our active travel budget to £88 million per annum in order to help to support greater infrastructure investment, particularly in cycling and walking. We made a commitment on Tuesday of this week to maintain that in order to ensure that we continue to see infrastructure investment going into cycling and walking provision.

The United Kingdom Government is going to extend the cap for people taking part in the bike-to-work scheme so that it can expand the use of electric bikes. Is there any way that the Scottish Government can incentivise the uptake of electric bikes? The focus just now seems to be more on electric cars.

The member may be interested to know that we have a loan scheme whereby individuals can secure funding for the purpose of purchasing electric bikes, because they are more costly. If I recall correctly, something like £6,000 per household is available for the purchase of up to, I think, three or four bikes, and it is an interest-free loan that they receive for the purpose of doing that, so there is a scheme in place that can support people in purchasing electric bikes.

As anyone who has had the opportunity to use an e-bike will know, they are fantastic in helping to support people in getting back into cycling and being able to use a bike on occasions when they would otherwise choose not to do so, and I certainly wish to encourage other people to think about e-bikes as an option for commuting.

Ayrshire (Transport Objectives)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the work being undertaken by Transport Scotland and the regional transport partnerships in Ayrshire to identify new transport objectives for the region. (S5O-03482)

The draft south-west Scotland transport study, which was published on 27 June, covers part of East and South Ayrshire, and it includes a list of potential strategic transport interventions for the region. Once final, those interventions will be the subject of more detailed appraisal in the second strategic transport projects review, which is under way.

As part of STPR2, an Ayrshire and Arran regional transport working group has been formed, which covers a larger area. Most recently, it met on 29 August to discuss the emerging outcomes from the initial evidence gathering and stakeholder events that were undertaken in May and June.

I welcome the recent news that a new direct ferry link is to be established between the east of Scotland and Europe—the Netherlands—and remind the cabinet secretary that, in the west of Scotland, more than 1 million passengers still choose to fly between Scotland and Dublin. Does he see the possibilities in developing a direct ferry service to Dublin from our ferry ports in Ayrshire, not only to provide a direct ferry connection for businesses to Europe, but to open up the huge potential for further tourism expansion between Scotland and Ireland that such a service would offer?

We will always be keen to see an expansion of direct ferry connections between Scotland and Europe, but any such ferry connection would have to be commercially viable. It would have to operate in commercial terms and in a way that complies with state aid rules.

Willie Coffey referred to the 1 million passengers who choose to travel by air between Scotland and Ireland. A key element of making sure that any ferry service is sustainable is ensuring that it has sufficient levels of freight traffic. That is critical to its baseload and making it commercially viable. Any party that is considering establishing a ferry route between Scotland and Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands or Scotland and anywhere else would have to ensure that it would be commercially viable and would have a customer base that could sustain it.

We will always engage with parties that are interested in direct ferry links between Scotland and other parts of Europe, but that will always be on the basis that the operation needs to be commercially viable.

We already have a viable ferry option between Scotland and Ireland out of Cairnryan, which is the busiest port in Scotland, but it is being hampered by poor road and rail infrastructure in the south-west of Scotland. Given that investment in the south-west of Scotland is far less than that in the rest of Scotland, if the cabinet secretary looked at the A75, the A77, the A76, the A70 and the rail link down there, that would resolve a lot of issues, especially around the need for infrastructure, given the Ayrshire growth deal. Where are those considerations?

Brian Whittle will be well aware of the south-west Scotland transport study, which has looked at a whole range of interventions to improve the transport infrastructure in the south-west of Scotland. That will feed into the STPR process. We have consulted on that over the summer months. There was a request for that consultation to be extended, and we have extended it for a further four weeks to ensure that as many members of the public and interested stakeholders as possible have an opportunity to feed into the process in order to get it right.

I do not accept Brian Whittle’s characterisation that we prioritise other parts of Scotland over the south-west of Scotland. Work is being undertaken to create the Maybole bypass, for example. That is a very good example of infrastructure investment in the south-west of Scotland.

It is important that we ensure that, for the decisions that we make on where our priorities for transport investment should be—whether in respect of road, rail, bus or any type of active travel measure—we go through an evidence-based process to ensure that we make the right type of intervention to support the local area. That is exactly what the south-west Scotland transport study is about. It will feed into the process through the STPR, and that will ensure that we make the right types of interventions to deliver the right type of transport connectivity to all parts of Scotland.

The programme for government gives a welcome commitment to decarbonise Scotland’s passenger rail services by 2035. However, the cabinet secretary will know that only diesel trains run on rail routes on the ScotRail network in Ayrshire and other parts of south-west Scotland, such as Dumfries and Galloway. Does he therefore agree that full electrification of those routes should be considered to deliver faster, better and more sustainable rail services for passengers in south-west Scotland, and not least to support the ferry ports in Cairnryan?

It is important that we take an ambitious approach to decarbonising our rail network. That is why I welcome Colin Smyth’s comments on the ambitions in that particular area that we have set out in the programme for government.

He will be aware that significant technological advances are taking place in the propulsion for trains. Electrification is the option that we choose primarily at present. More than 70 per cent of all daily passenger journeys now take place on electrified routes in Scotland, and we have given a commitment to look at further electrification in Scotland. However, there are also advances in battery-powered trains and hydrogen-powered trains, and we are already working with a number of parties to look at how we can explore their use within the Scottish network. Electrification will be part of the plans and different types of propulsion in the form of hydrogen and battery will be in the mix to make sure that we decarbonise our rail network by 2035.

Superfast Broadband

To ask the Scottish Government how much financial support the UK Government is providing for Scotland’s reaching 100 per cent superfast broadband programme. (S5O-03483)

All regulatory and legislative powers on telecommunications, including for broadband services, are scheduled as being wholly reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament under the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998.

Despite its reserved responsibilities, the UK Government has chosen to commit only £21 million, or just 3.5 per cent of the total investment of £600 million that is required for the reaching 100 per cent programme. with the Scottish Government committing from our devolved resources the remaining £579 million, or 96.5 per cent of the total funding that is required for the programme.

I thank the minister for that disappointing response. It is a strange way to treat one of the so-called family of nations that we were told we are some time ago.

How does that level of funding compare with investment by the Westminster Government in broadband and fibre in other parts of the UK?

I share James Dornan’s disappointment with the response. We are both disappointed because, while the UK Government has made the rather substantial sum of £150 million available to help to deliver Northern Ireland’s superfast broadband programme—almost 91 per cent of the programme’s total cost—Scotland and Wales have largely been left out of the picture, with the R100 programme receiving just 3.5 per cent of its total cost, as I said in my original answer. Wales’s superfast broadband aspirations have been funded entirely by the Welsh Government and European Union funding.

I hope that we can have a positive relationship with the new Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport ministerial team, and I hope that its members reflect on the actions of their predecessors and look to increase support to Scotland and Wales to deliver our broadband aspirations.

Mr Dornan might be pleased to learn that the UK Government contributed £120 million to the digital Scottish superfast broadband programme, which delivered broadband to 95 per cent of households, versus just £60 million from his own Government.

The reality is that the Scottish Government made the commitment to the R100 programme although it did not have to. It promised £600 million but not a penny of it has been spent yet. It said that R100 will be delivered by 2021, but it will now be the end of 2021. When will R100 be delivered? When will contracts be signed? That is what people really want to know.

I have already made it clear to all members that we have outlined a timetable for reaching a decision on awarding the contracts for R100. That is due to happen by the end of this calendar year. In the near future, we will be able to select preferred bidders.

I have explained to numerous colleagues of Jamie Greene that we are in the middle of a procurement exercise and cannot break embargo on a commercial contract negotiation during a procurement process. I hope that Jamie Greene understands that. We have committed to give out the information as soon as we are able to do so, and I repeat that commitment today.

Jamie Greene also referred to the amount of funding that came from the Scottish Government to DSSB. If he goes back and looks at the numbers and adds up Highlands and Islands Enterprise support, Scottish Government support, and support from local authorities funded by the Scottish Government, he will see that the Scottish Government has put in more resources than the UK Government has.

It is also interesting to hear a member of the Conservatives seeming to take credit for DSSB when we have been criticised for the past three years for a so-called failure to deliver. Perhaps Mr Greene will now acknowledge that DSSB has been a great success. In Inverclyde, which is an area close to his heart, 97.4 per cent of premises have access to superfast broadband speeds.

Traffic Congestion (Edinburgh)

To ask the Scottish Government what support can be given to the City of Edinburgh Council to manage traffic congestion across the city, especially during periods where visitor numbers dramatically increase. (S5O-03484)

The Scottish Government, through Transport Scotland, supports the City of Edinburgh Council by working with the council and transport providers to promote public transport as a viable option for visitors and local residents. The recently announced significant new funding to improve bus priority infrastructure will also support local authorities to tackle the impact of congestion on bus services.

However, the tackling of traffic congestion is the city council’s responsibility. Under the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984, it has a duty to manage local roads, and duties under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to secure the expeditious, convenient and safe movement of traffic through the city.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary supports the City of Edinburgh Council’s ambitious plans to tackle congestion, including plans to introduce a low-emission zone, the city centre transformation project and plans to extend the existing network of park-and-ride facilities across the city. What can the Scottish Government do to support the extension of the network of park-and-ride facilities, such as the one at Hermiston, in my constituency?

I recognise that Edinburgh council has ambitious plans to tackle congestion in the city centre and to improve public transport infrastructure in the city overall. Some of the funding that is coming through the Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal is assisting that work, alongside funding from the active travel budget with which Edinburgh has recently been provided for the George Street project, which will help to improve transport infrastructure in the city.

Park-and-ride facilities are extremely valuable, and it is important that the city council looks at how they can be developed. Local authorities such as the City of Edinburgh Council can use the bus partnership funding that we announced in the programme for government to support and develop bus infrastructure in order to improve bus journey times and patronage levels. Local authorities can look at how that ties into park-and-ride facilities. Use of the more than £500 million that we have committed through the bus partnership scheme is one route that the city council could take in the year ahead to support provision of park-and-ride facilities, alongside bus infrastructure.

Question 5 has been withdrawn.

Inverness Airport (Rail Services)

To ask the Scottish Government when Inverness airport will have a railway station. (S5O-03486)

The Aberdeen to Inverness rail improvement project is delivering the infrastructure to facilitate a new station at Dalcross, which is being progressed as planned by Network Rail and on behalf of Scottish ministers. We expect the project to be completed on schedule in the first half of rail control period 6, which runs from this year to 2024. Transport Scotland will be in a position to confirm the starting and opening dates once Network Rail has completed its feasibility work, and once third-party funding has been secured.

I remind the cabinet secretary that the planning permission is about to lapse, because the station should have been built already. Given that the proposed station will be more than a mile away from the airport, will the price of a train ticket to Dalcross include free travel on to the airport on a shuttle bus?

That matter will have to be considered as part of any proposal that is brought forward by HITRANS—the Highlands and Islands transport partnership—which is the promoter of the project.

The new planning application has been made not because of the application lapsing but because the railway station will have two platforms and a turning loop. That will mean that the station will be double the size that was originally intended, which I am sure Edward Mountain will welcome.

The work is part of the £330 million that we are investing in rail infrastructure in the north-east of Scotland. The new train station at Forres has already been provided. I was able to visit to see the good progress that is being made through the investment in rail infrastructure at Kintore: the new station is at an advanced stage and should be open this year.

I am sure that the member will welcome the fact that we are putting significant investment into rail infrastructure in the north-east of Scotland, including the train station to which he referred, which I am sure the people of the north-east will very much welcome.

Public Transport Passengers (Major Events)

To ask the Scottish Government how it manages increased passenger numbers on public transport during major events. (S5O-03487)

Transport Scotland works closely with public transport providers and relevant stakeholders to ensure that public transport provision for major events reflects anticipated demand, and that the disruptive impact on business-as-usual travel is mitigated when possible. The work is reflected in groups that bring together various transport providers that operate across a range of modes, including bus, rail and taxi, to discuss issues and ensure that any challenges that are identified are addressed. Through those groups, partnership working is taken forward in a number of areas to look at how transport provision for major events can be improved.

As the cabinet secretary will be aware, the widespread disruption on ScotRail on 24 August coincided with various major events in Edinburgh. It caused chaos for my constituents, some of whom faced very expensive taxi journeys home. Others were forced to squeeze on to trains of just two carriages. One rail traveller said that the train that they were on was “dangerously overcrowded” and that somebody could have been seriously injured.

I have two questions. First, how will the transport secretary ensure that, before major events, proper planning and preparation are executed in order to anticipate demand and avoid overcrowding? It is clear that such work is not being done at the moment, even with the focus groups.

Secondly—this is an issue that members will have read about in today’s newspapers—what is the Scottish Government’s opinion on whether Haymarket and Waverley should both remain open during multiple major events?

Rachael Hamilton raises a very reasonable point. What happened on 24 August was unacceptable and is a matter that we are considering very seriously. We have made it clear to ScotRail and the other agencies that what happened was unacceptable.

As Rachael Hamilton will be aware, a review is being carried out in the rail industry to identify what went wrong and what actions can be taken to prevent difficulties such as those that were experienced on 24 August. I will see the details of that review once it has been completed, at which point I will consider what action should be taken to implement any recommendations that are made about how we can deal with such situations more effectively.

That said, it is important to recognise that, across the board, our transport network plans and manages major events well. The Commonwealth games is a good example of a major event that was managed well. Major events take place across the country at various times, and, by and large, they are managed well.

However, there are a number of factors relating to the events on 24 August that need to be addressed. The member mentioned the question whether Haymarket station should be closed on such occasions, with all passengers being put through Waverley. It is quite common for the approach to be used in other parts of the United Kingdom, with the train station that is closest to the major event being closed so that a queuing system can be put in place. The use of a train station that is slightly further away enables crowds to be managed more readily.

Before we get to that point, there is a wider issue that needs to be addressed, which is the holding of a major rugby international and a Hibs home game on the last day of the Edinburgh festival, during an English bank holiday, when visitor numbers in Edinburgh would already have been higher. There is only so much that the system can cope with. We need to address the wider issue of how we make sure that, when it comes to managing major events, we look at the wider situation. After the review has been carried out of what happened on the rail side of things, I want to look at that wider issue of how such situations are managed and the decision-making process that is involved. Transport Scotland officials have already engaged with the City of Edinburgh Council and other parties to explore that issue. It is important not only that we take the matter seriously and that we get to the bottom of what happened on 24 August, but that we look at the wider issue and make sure that we manage such situations more effectively in the future.