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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 9, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 09 June 2016

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Treaty of Perth (750th Anniversary), Dignity, Fairness and Respect in Disability Benefits, Decision Time


General Question Time

Transport Infrastructure (North Aberdeenshire)

To ask the Scottish Government what investment plans it has for transport infrastructure in north Aberdeenshire. (S5O-00021)

The completion of the Aberdeen western peripheral route Balmedie to Tipperty project will provide a dual carriageway link to Ellon and bring significant travel benefits to communities and businesses north of Aberdeen. Construction work is well under way on that £745 million project, which is estimated to bring 14,000 jobs and £6 billion of benefits to the north-east over the next 30 years. We are also making a number of improvements to the Aberdeen to Inverness rail line and have given a clear commitment to dual the A96, which will mean delivery of approximately 86 miles of upgraded road between Inverness and Aberdeen by 2030.

We recognise that the AWPR is very important to the north-east, but the Scottish Government has succeeded in reannouncing previous manifesto commitments as new spending on north-east infrastructure on several occasions. Will the minister now make a substantial commitment to support the north-east economy and thousands of Aberdeenshire commuters by agreeing to extend the dualling of the A90 past Ellon through to Europe’s largest whitefish market at Peterhead?

Although I am only three weeks into the job, the member is being a little bit ungenerous about what the Scottish Government has done for the north-east. On top of what I have already mentioned, the member will know about the £170 million for improvements to the Aberdeen to Inverness rail link; the £200 million for improvement of the Aberdeen to the central belt rail link; the £24 million towards Laurencekirk; and the dualling of the A96; on top of the AWPR Balmedie to Tipperty project and the Haudagain roundabout. Also, £25,000 has been spent on the feasibility study for the link between Aberdeen, Fraserburgh and Peterhead.

All of that shows a commitment to the north and north-east of Scotland. On dualling the A90, as part of the city deal there is £5 million for an appraisal and a strategic view of how we can improve road and rail infrastructure in the north and north-east.

If the member has specific ideas, he should work with the local authorities and with me, Transport Scotland and other stakeholders as we take forward the work that will commence this year as part of the city deal appraisal of transport links to the north and north-east.

I very much welcome the work that is being done on the AWPR and the dualling of the road between Balmedie and Tipperty. In light of the importance of travel times to business and commuters, can the minister enlighten us on the specific benefit to travel times of the investments that the Government has made?

Of course, that is a key benefit of the work that we are doing on the AWPR, which will cut journey times across Aberdeen by up to half at peak times and will provide much improved journey times—as well as improved reliability and facility—for public transport on local roads. The AWPR Balmedie to Tipperty project forms a core part of our commitment to improving transport in the north and the north-east.

Alongside that project is the Inveramsay bridge on the A96, which the member will know well and the improvements to the Haudagain roundabout that I mentioned earlier, as well as the proposals to dual the A96 between Aberdeen and Inverness. Taken with all the other projects that we are doing in the area, those projects will ensure that all Scotland’s cities are connected by a high-quality transport system that will generate economic growth.

Aberdeen City Region Deal

2. Ross Thomson (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether the £254 million infrastructure investment that it announced in January 2016 will be included as part of the Aberdeen city region deal governance structure. (S5O-00022)

The Scottish Government has demonstrated strong support for Aberdeen and the north-east by committing over the next 10 years up to £125 million, alongside £125 million from the United Kingdom Government, for an Aberdeen city region deal. Alongside that, we have committed to an additional investment of £254 million in transport, digital and housing to deliver a more significant step change to the economy of the north-east.

We sought to expand the city deal to include further investment, but that was not agreed to by the UK Government. Consequently, the further investment by the Scottish Government does not form part of the city deal or its governance structure. However, I have asked my officials to work closely with the civic and business leaders of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire to ensure that the regional partners are kept updated on the progress of the additional investments so that the new city region deal governance structures can maximise the impacts of the city deal investments.

I have here the papers for the Aberdeen city region deal joint committee, which meets tomorrow. On page 15, officials advise that

“An agreement on the additional £254m has yet to be ratified”.

Projects within the additional fund, such as the railway improvement from Aberdeen to Dundee, have been repackaged and reannounced since 2008, and the plans have not been able to progress to GRIP—guide to rail investment process—stage 1. It is crucial that the projects are subject to proper governance, to ensure delivery.

The heads of terms for the United Kingdom city region deal were signed back on 28 January. Will the minister confirm when the Scottish Government will stop dragging its feet and provide clarity on when the announced funding will be made available for the projects identified? Will both councils and Opportunity North East have any input into how the funds are spent?

I am not sure whether Ross Thomson listened to the answer that I gave. He talked about reannouncements. Last week, his colleague reannounced to this Parliament that the city deal—£125 million from the UK Government and £125 million from the Scottish Government—was in fact a £250 million deal from the UK Government. That was a reannouncement—it was also not true.

The fact is that we tried to expand the city deal, but the UK Government said that it would not put in any more money. These investments are over and above that. Of course, there is an interest for the governance structures of the city deal, which will want to know when we are investing, to help inform their own investment decisions. I have undertaken to let them know that.

We have also said that the various projects—the rail work that Ross Thomson identified, the digital work and the housing work—will be undertaken in the same 10-year period as the city deal. We will keep the governance structures informed.

Let us be clear: it was additional investment from the Scottish Government, because the UK Government would not put in any more money.

The Laurencekirk junction is vitally important to my constituency. What is the timescale for delivery of the junction?

I confirmed that £24 million would be made available for the provision of a grade-separated A90-A937 junction at Laurencekirk as part of the package of additional investment alongside the Aberdeen city region deal. The work will be undertaken over the course of the 10-year city deal period. Transport Scotland will progress the scheme to the next stage of design development and thereafter, through the relevant statutory procedures. I am sure that Mairi Evans understands that the possibility of inquiries means that we cannot be absolutely definitive at this stage. The delivery of the scheme will proceed once those procedures are completed satisfactorily.

The cabinet secretary will know that the railway project is perhaps the biggest item on the list of projects. What discussions has the Government or Transport Scotland had with Network Rail about the detailed plans? When can an announcement be expected?

I had discussions with Network Rail on the day of the announcement. Discussions have continued between Transport Scotland and Network Rail. A feasibility study has to be undertaken first, but that work is under way as we speak.

Rural Public Transport

3. Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve public transport in rural areas. (S5O-00023)

The Scottish Government is investing more than £1 billion annually in public transport and other sustainable transport options, to improve connectivity between communities and businesses, including in our rural, remote and island areas.

Is the minister aware that First Bus intends to discontinue a number of services in my constituency, making an unsatisfactory public transport service even worse? I am due to meet the company shortly to discuss the matter. Is the minister prepared to engage in discussions with me about improving public transport services in places in the north of my constituency, such as Killin, Tyndrum and Crianlarich, and in the west, such as Drymen and Croftamie, to improve connectivity for local people?

I am deeply concerned about the impact of First East’s proposals. As soon as I heard about them, I met First East as a matter of urgency. Of course I will meet Bruce Crawford to discuss what the impacts will be.

Because of legislation that we passed, there is an increased period for consultation between the operator and local authorities and other stakeholders, to see what can be done. In my meeting with First East last week, I urged it to have that discussion with local authorities as a matter of urgency.

It is my hope that other bus service operators may well step in to provide the services if they are reduced or indeed withdrawn. However, I am deeply concerned. Of course I will meet the member; I will also seek to meet other MSPs and bring them together with stakeholders. I have tasked Transport Scotland to look into how we can do that as a matter of urgency.

The minister has had a meeting with First East so he will be aware of a proposal to cut entirely dedicated bus services to Borders College in Galashiels. Could the minister or perhaps a colleague advise whether there is any scope to support those services from the closing the attainment gap fund? We can hardly close the attainment gap if people cannot get to the college.

I will of course have that discussion with my education colleagues. I am entirely aware of the impact that cutting those services would have. I will talk to the member herself and I will bring together MSPs from across the affected areas so that we can have that conversation.

My hope is that other bus operators will step in where there are gaps, as I said in my previous answer. I hope that those discussions will move things forward. I will have a discussion with the education minister and I will update the member on that discussion.

Question 4 is from Rona Mackay. She is not in the chamber so we will move to question 5.

Trunk Roads (Noise Levels)

5. Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what noise level monitoring it carries out on the trunk road network. (S5O-00025)

There is no routine programme of monitoring of noise levels on the trunk road network. Before a project starts and once it is complete, road scheme-specific before-and-after noise monitoring is undertaken if the environmental statement identifies noise as a potentially significant environmental issue. Construction noise is also monitored on the same basis. Noise monitoring near the trunk road network is also undertaken by Transport Scotland in certain specific cases.

A number of my constituents who live near the A720 Edinburgh city bypass complain of excessive traffic noise. Could the Government consider measures such as reducing the speed limit, low-noise surfacing or barriers to reduce the noise level for my constituents who are affected by the problem?

I will meet the member to discuss where exactly along the A720 Edinburgh city bypass the affected constituents live. A number of site-specific noise monitoring exercises have taken place since 2006. Noise monitoring took place in Gillespie Road in Colinton in 2011, and Jacobs undertook a week-long noise survey in Gillespie Road in 2015. In addition, Atkins has undertaken a noise survey at Monkton house near Old Craighall. The issue has continued to be reviewed. Traffic on the A720 has been found to have increased by less than 5 per cent, which should not have a significant impact on noise levels. However, I am happy to meet the member to get more detail on where those constituents live and to discuss the issue.

A Danish study has found that, for every 10 decibel increase in the volume of road traffic noise exposure, there is a 12 per cent increase in the risk of heart attacks. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that homes that are near busy roads—or, indeed, under busy flight paths—are insulated against that noise pollution?

I point the member in the direction of the current legislation. The Noise Insulation (Scotland) Regulations 1975 set out a noise limit threshold of 68 decibels for new projects. I am not aware of the study that the member mentioned, but I am happy to discuss it with him. If he sends me the study, I can also discuss it with Transport Scotland.

We already carry out noise monitoring before any significant infrastructure projects take place, but if there is more information that the member thinks we should be looking at, of course I am open minded about exploring that information, regardless of where it comes from—or who it comes from across the chamber.

Curriculum for Excellence (Implementation)

6. Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority regarding the implementation of the curriculum for excellence. (S5O-00026)

The Scottish Government discusses the implementation of curriculum for excellence with Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority regularly.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the growing concern about the subject choices that are available in different schools. Some schools offer seven national 5s; some offer six; and others offer five. Does he agree that many parents and children are concerned about the impact of that on pupils’ ability to choose subjects at higher and advanced higher level? What does he intend to do about the situation?

Mr Balfour raises significant and serious issues that I am actively looking at. One advantage of curriculum for excellence is that it provides greater autonomy and flexibility to enable the teaching profession to determine the best way to proceed with the delivery of the curriculum. The decisions to which Mr Balfour refers are taken in individual schools and local authorities.

We must be mindful that young people must be able to secure, through curriculum for excellence, a broad general education, but they should then be able to make the appropriate choices on which they can found substantive parts of their working lives.

I assure Mr Balfour that those issues are very much on my agenda in my discussions with the SQA and Education Scotland. As the Government sets out its further thinking on the delivery plan for improving attainment, we will reflect further on the points that Mr Balfour has raised with me today.

On the subject of discussions with the SQA, can the cabinet secretary confirm, in light of the issues with this year’s national 5 computing science paper, what discussions have taken place to ensure that such mistakes are not made again, and what reassurances have been sought that students will not be adversely affected by something that is outwith their control?

I have written to the chief examiner expressing my discontent at the fact that there were errors—they have been confirmed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority—in the computer science exam. Frankly, that is not good enough—the papers should be checked properly, and there is adequate opportunity for that to be done. I have made clear my discontent to the chief examiner in that respect.

The errors are typographical, but I accept that they should not have been there in the first place. As part of the process of assessment of examination performance, the SQA will take into account any impact arising from the issue.

Clyde Gateway (Funding)

7. Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether the Clyde Gateway project will continue to receive core funding. (S5O-00027)

Yes—the Scottish Government has agreed to provide £3 million of funding to Clyde Gateway over the current financial year. Further support is being considered as part of the current spending review.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his answer.

Contaminated land is an unwelcome legacy in my constituency because of the area’s industrial past. Can the cabinet secretary give an assurance that the Clyde Gateway project will receive funding to allow it to continue its land decontamination work in the Shawfield area of Rutherglen?

I thank Ms Haughey for the promotion to cabinet secretary, but I think that such a further promotion in just a few weeks is highly unlikely. [Laughter.]

Since 2006, South Lanarkshire Council, which is a key partner in the Clyde Gateway project, has benefited from more than £17 million in funding through the vacant and derelict land fund. The council has allocated more than £5 million of that funding to Clyde Gateway to support the remediation of the Shawfield site in Rutherglen.

Officials are currently assessing South Lanarkshire Council’s proposals for allocating its share of the vacant and derelict land fund in 2016-17, and a decision will be issued in due course. Officials are also working closely with Clyde Gateway to seek further investment and funding opportunities to support the project’s activities.

Schools (Additional Support for Learning)

8. Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports the provision of additional support for learning posts in schools. (S5O-00028)

Local authorities employ all additional support for learning staff in schools and are responsible for all provision. Local authorities make provision in light of local circumstances and priorities, including their requirement to meet duties under the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004.

A recent Enable Scotland survey reported that many additional support needs pupils are feeling severely undersupported due to a lack of staff time. Will the Scottish Government consider making support for learning a promoted post, thereby keeping the most skilled teachers in the classroom for the benefit of pupils who need them the most?

It is important that we ensure that the needs of young people are met most effectively. I am focused on the need to ensure that young people who have additional support needs are given adequate and appropriate support that is commensurate with their circumstances and conditions. The Government will continue to take that approach, consistent with the content of the 2004 act.