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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 10, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 10 December 2020

Agenda: First Minister's Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill: Stage 1, Business Motion, Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill, Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill: Financial Resolution, Business Motions, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity

Before we begin, I remind members of the social distancing protocols that are in place here in the chamber and across the campus, and to follow those at all times, in particular when you are entering and exiting the chamber.

The next item of business is portfolio questions on transport, infrastructure and connectivity. Members who wish to ask supplementary questions should press their request-to-speak buttons or, if you are joining us remotely, type an “R” in the chat box to request to speak.

A723 (Carfin Bypass Dualling)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with North Lanarkshire Council and the Glasgow city region city deal regarding dualling the A723 Carfin bypass. (S5O-04841)

The Scottish Government has committed to investing £500 million in the Glasgow city region deal to stimulate economic growth and to create jobs.

As the local roads authority for the A723, North Lanarkshire Council is responsible for delivering that particular Glasgow city region deal scheme, which is dualling of the A723 and B799 from Ravenscraig to Holytown. The Scottish Government is currently in discussion with North Lanarkshire Council regarding land that is owned by Scottish ministers that might be required by the council as part of its planned A723 upgrade.

Work was carried out almost two years ago on the main Glasgow to Edinburgh railway line to install a new bridge to allow that dualling to take place. Many of my constituents questioned that at the time. Does the minister believe that joined-up working should be paramount when suggestions are made about future roadworks?

I agree that it is important to have joined-up working between agencies such as Network Rail, road management bodies and local authorities, particularly in consideration of investment in strategic infrastructure of the type to which Richard Lyle refers.

The new Robroyston station is a good example of that kind of partnership. It was successfully delivered by rail partners, Glasgow City Council and Transport Scotland and the work was carried out in a way that minimised disruption to the A80 trunk route and local roads. The member makes an important point about ensuring that there is appropriate joined-up working on projects of that nature.

Free Bus Travel

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is regarding free bus travel for all. (S5O-04842)

The Scottish Government will continue to provide free bus travel for older and eligible disabled people through the national concessionary travel scheme. We will also extend free bus travel to all young people aged under 19 who are resident in Scotland as soon as is practicable, in the coming year.

In addition, we are reviewing the options for extending public transport concessions to people who are aged under 26, including assessing the costs and benefits so that we can fully consider financial sustainability. The review will be completed by the end of this month, and findings will be published early in the new year.

The Government resisted providing free school meals until political pressure and a social crisis forced its hand. When will the Government accept that the climate crisis is such that a move to free bus travel is not only desirable, but is an absolute necessity?

Public transport plays an important part in meeting our net zero emissions commitment, as set out by Parliament in our climate change legislation. That is why we are extending free bus travel to people under 19, and why we are reviewing extension of the existing concessionary scheme for people under 26. It is important to ensure that we continue to encourage people to use public transport. I assure the member that the Government will continue to encourage people to use public transport. The concessionary scheme plays an important part in supporting that.

Bill Kidd has a supplementary question.

The cabinet secretary just mentioned that the extension of concessionary travel to under-19s has been paused, which is basically due to Covid-19. However, can he provide an update on when work on delivering that commitment will begin?

Mr Kidd is correct that some of the work around the preparations for introducing concessionary travel for under-19s was paused earlier in the year due to staff in Transport Scotland having to pivot towards dealing with Covid-19 issues. However, that work was restarted in the summer and we have just completed a consultation exercise on the planned draft orders that are associated with the concessionary travel programme. Now that that process has been completed, we are at the final stages of drafting the regulations, which I hope to introduce in Parliament early in the new year, with a view to introducing the scheme later in 2021.

Edinburgh City Bypass (Upgrade Plans)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to upgrade the Edinburgh city bypass. (S5O-04843)

The Scottish Government is committed to delivering improvements to the Sheriffhall junction on the A720 as part of the Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal. Transport Scotland is working to progress resolution of objections to the scheme, and is taking forward the statutory processes that are required to enable its delivery. Any further enhancements to the A720 are for consideration in the second strategic transport projects review, which will report its second phase in autumn 2021.

The Sheriffhall junction redevelopment is only one piece of the jigsaw to improve traffic flow on the city bypass. Given that the transport secretary has written to me to say that there are no current plans by the Scottish Government to undertake a feasibility study on widening the city bypass, what action will the Scottish Government take to reduce congestion on all of the city bypass, especially considering that the projected population growth in the south-east of Scotland over the next 20 years is so considerable?

Any transport interventions of a strategic nature need to be taken forward on a planned basis, which is why the STPR process looks not only at national priorities, but at regional priorities, including within the Edinburgh area. Miles Briggs will be aware that a study has already been undertaken of potential transport priorities for the Edinburgh area. Any decision on future strategic investments in those areas will be part of the STPR2 process.

It is extremely important that we ensure that the approach that we take to investing in transport is not just about expanding existing capacity, but is also about managing demand, which we need to do to ensure that we can meet the objectives that Parliament has set as part of our climate change legislation. That means also looking at how we can manage demand by reducing car use and mileage as a key part of our strategy to meet our climate change targets.

Covid-19 (Public Transport)

To ask the Scottish Government what provision it has made to ensure that both publicly and privately owned public transport continues to operate viably, in light of reduced passenger numbers and changing working patterns following Covid-19. (S5O-04844)

We have provided a significant level of additional financial commitment to public transport operators across all modes to ensure that services are maintained at appropriate levels. That amounts to £546 million to date, which relates to support provided to rail, bus and light rail up to January 2021 and for ferries until March 2021. That support is to allow those who need to use public transport at the moment to continue to do so, but it is also to ensure that we retain a viable public transport system that is fit for purpose for the future.

The cabinet secretary referred to certain dates early in the new year, but the Scottish Government has so far failed to provide detail of the support beyond the beginning of the new year. People have substantially altered their patterns of transport from public to private as a result of the Covid situation. Will the cabinet secretary provide the detail of the Government’s forward strategy for the support and promotion of public transport beyond the beginning of the new year?

Our national transport strategy sets out clearly our priorities for investment in transport and the priorities for our public transport system.

In dealing with the immediate challenges of the pandemic, we are engaged in considering providing additional financial support for public transport into the new year. That work will be progressed at pace, and we will make announcements on that in due course.

Additionally, we are planning for the recovery and considering what further measures can be put in place to encourage people to move back to public transport once we get through the pandemic. Public transport will play a critical role in supporting us to create the modal shift that is critical for achieving our net zero targets. Therefore, public transport investment will continue to be a key priority of this Government.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm whether funding is available for local authorities and regional transport partnerships? How can such funds be accessed?

Funding for local authorities to support public transport, particularly in relation to buses and RTPs, comes through the block grant, which is provided to local authorities each year. There is around £50 million of Scottish Government funding in that budget, which is allocated for the purposes of supporting in particular bus services in a local authority area. That funding, which is allocated through the block grant, is allocated to local authorities annually.

Our key transport workers have kept Scotland’s public transport moving. Why has the Scottish Government blocked ScotRail from engaging in pay negotiations with its staff unions for 2020? We are not even talking about next year’s pay talks; it is doing that for this year’s pay talks.

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance rightly said recently that there would be no Tory pay freeze in Scotland next year. However, before we even get to next year, the Scottish National Party Government’s pay freeze for rail workers in Scotland this year is the problem.

I am sure that Mr Smyth will recognise the lack of clarity and certainty that the Treasury has provided in relation to the Scottish block grant and the Barnett consequentials. That has created significant financial pressures for the Scottish Government in determining what our budget allocation will be in a number of areas, including in transport. However, I have already agreed that ScotRail can engage with the trade unions on any discussions around pay settlements.

It is important to recognise that we have already invested a significant amount of money in our public transport system, including in rail, in order to help to support and sustain it.

Budgets will remain extremely challenging, but we have given permission for ScotRail to engage with the unions on pay, being mindful of the extreme and difficult financial situation in which we are operating.

Travel Infrastructure Investment (North-east)

To ask the Scottish Government what investment it is making in travel infrastructure to help reduce the carbon footprint of the people of the north-east. (S5O-04845)

We continue to invest in the north-east to promote low-carbon travel opportunities. On railways, we are spending £330 million between Aberdeen and Inverness, including on the opening of Kintore station. As part of the Aberdeen city region deal, we are investing £200 million on increasing passenger and freight capacity between Aberdeen and the central belt.

On active travel, we are investing almost £7.6 million on infrastructure to promote cycling, walking and safer streets. Additionally, we have spent £1.1 million on bus infrastructure and we are funding the roll-out of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, low-carbon vehicles and support for hydrogen buses across the region.

I welcome everything that the cabinet secretary has just said, particularly on the dualling of the rail track from Aberdeen to Inverness and on the new Kintore station. However, the top corner of the north-east continues to be without any plans for new railway infrastructure. Many people who live in the towns of Ellon, Fraserburgh, Peterhead, Turriff and Banff do not have the option of quick public transport routes into Aberdeen. What consideration is the cabinet secretary giving to calls for new rail infrastructure investment in the area?

Gillian Martin raises an important issue, and I recognise that she is keen for that to be given further consideration. As part of our on-going work on the strategic transport projects review process, a number of interventions have been identified in the north-east, including the possibility of, particularly as a rail option, a new line into the wider transport network from Aberdeen, Peterhead and Fraserburgh.

As part of the STPR2 process, we are presently considering 41 proposals for transport options in the north-east of Scotland. I assure the member that the proposed new line is one of those options.

Shetland Ferry Services (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government how it has supported Shetland’s internal ferry services. (S5O-04846)

The Scottish Government recognises the pressures that can fall on local authorities in the provision of ferry services, which result from arrangements that were put in place before the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, in 1999.

In the 2020-21 budget, I was able to secure further additional revenue funding of more than £5.2 million to support Shetland Islands Council’s internal ferry services. That brings the total additional support provided to the council, on top of the local government settlement, to more than £15.4 million over the past three years, which is a significant sum in such a challenging financial climate.

Since 2018, the Scottish Government has repeatedly failed to uphold its promise to northern isles communities when it comes to the full funding of lifeline internal ferry services. However, the long-term transport connectivity solution is fixed links, as the ambition of the Faroe Islands has demonstrated through the further expansion of its tunnel network and the creation of an undersea roundabout. Will the minister tell my constituents when that essential funding will finally be delivered in full? Will the Scottish Government show similar ambition to the Faroe Islands and propose real plans for fixed links here, too?

I will respond to that in two parts. On the second part, on fixed links, I refer the member to the fact that we are developing the successor to the ferries plan, which will be the islands connectivity plan. That will have a wider remit than purely considering ferry services; it will also explore aviation and the creation of fixed links where it is sensible to do so. I certainly encourage the member to bear that in mind. I have also mentioned it to Councillor Coutts, the leader of Shetland Islands Council, and I will welcome the council’s engagement in the process once it is under way through the islands connectivity plan.

I disagree, in the politest terms, with Beatrice Wishart’s assessment of the situation on funding for ferries. I appreciate that that represents a significant issue for Shetland Islands Council and for other island authorities that have responsibility for internal ferry services. However, the Scottish Government has already provided additional support in that area. I stress that, in addition to the £15.4 million provided over the past three years and the £5.2 million in the current financial year, both of which I mentioned earlier, Shetland Islands Council receives funding through the grant-aided expenditure route to the tune of an estimated £6.54 million. Of course, that money is not ring fenced; it is available for the council to spend on its ferry service, which currently operates at a higher standard than the routes and services model requires.

I assure the member that we continue to engage with Shetland Islands Council on the sustainability of its internal ferry service. As we have done with other councils, we have directed it to engage with local government colleagues on the immediate pressures on its services caused by the Covid pandemic.

As is the case in Shetland, the internal ferry services in Orkney are

“a lifeline to the islands”,

as the board of Orkney Ferries pointed out in a letter to the cabinet secretary at the beginning of August. As a result of the recent collapse in traffic on those routes, it has been suffering a loss of £600,000 each quarter, putting those services at risk. Support has been provided for NorthLink Ferries and Caledonian MacBrayne, as well as for Glasgow’s subway and Edinburgh’s tram services, which have found themselves in similar positions. When can Orkney Islands Council expect to receive a similar approach from the Scottish Government?

We certainly recognise the issue that Liam McArthur has raised. I fully acknowledge that there are pressures not only on the supported services for which the Scottish Government is responsible but on those for which Orkney Islands Council and Shetlands Islands Council are responsible.

As the member will realise, Transport Scotland has been engaging regularly with local authority ferry operators throughout the Covid pandemic. During those discussions, it was confirmed that local authority ferry funding pressures resulting specifically from the Covid situation should be considered through engagement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, as part of a wider ask from local authorities on Covid-related financial impacts. I believe that such discussions are continuing with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance. I hope that Mr McArthur will be able to engage with the council on those.

Road and Rail Network (Winter Preparedness)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its winter preparedness for the road and rail network. (S5O-04847)

Although we know that severe weather will cause disruption, the Government has taken a wide range of steps to improve our resilience to the challenges of winter, to mitigate its impacts, to recover our transport networks, to help businesses and to get daily life back to normal as quickly as possible. Plans are in place to cover the three concurrent risks for this winter: Covid-19, European Union exit and winter preparedness. The total spend on winter maintenance services during 2019-20 was £14.9 million. That represents a 10.4 per cent increase from 2018-19.

My constituency has areas well above sea level in Gorebridge, Penicuik, Galashiels and Soutra. Because of that, they are very susceptible to snowfall and icing. To get to the nitty-gritty, if the cabinet secretary will allow the pun, can I be assured that grit and gritters will not be an issue for my constituents in these winter months?

Getting to the nitty-gritty, as Christine Grahame has suggested, is an important issue when it comes to winter preparedness. I assure the member that we have increased our gritting capacity on the trunk road network for this winter and that we have more gritters operating throughout the course of the winter period. It is also important to recognise that our colleagues in local authorities have put significant plans in place to support the local network.

The member can be assured that we have invested in additional capacity. That is not to say, though, that disruption will not occur as a result of adverse weather during the winter months. It is important that those who are commuting plan their journeys and consider whether there are alternative options available to them in using the public transport network during periods of adverse weather.

A82 and A83 (Improvement Plans)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans to improve the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful and A82 at Fort William. (S5O-04848)

I am committed to addressing the A83 landslip risks through design and assessment work, which is under way in order to develop a long-term solution. An announcement on a preferred corridor is expected by spring 2021.

In the meantime, work is under way on two new roadside catch pits. Additionally, I announced on 3 December that construction is to start immediately on a 175m landslide barrier adjacent to the local diversion, to bolster resilience on that particular route.

The second strategic transport projects review is considering long-term infrastructure improvements to the A82 at Fort William and is due to report in autumn 2021.

BEAR Scotland recently confirmed that it does not know when the Rest and Be Thankful will open again, and, despite years of commitments to improve the A82 at Fort William, little progress has been made. Local residents are exasperated at the lack of swift action to improve both routes, and many feel that the Scottish National Party Government cares more about investing in central belt infrastructure than it does about investing in roads in rural and remote Scotland. Can the cabinet secretary provide an update on when the new defences on the old military road at the Rest and Be Thankful will be open, and will he commit to new infrastructure to improve the flow of traffic into Fort William?

It is somewhat surprising that Donald Cameron is suggesting that our priority is the central belt, given that we are taking forward one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Scotland through the dualling of the A9 up to Inverness and that, alongside that, we will be dualling the A96 between Inverness and Aberdeen—again, an area that, in my view, is certainly not within the central belt. That is alongside our significant investment in public transport.

I assure the member that I recognise the significant difficulties that have been experienced by those who stay in Argyll and Bute and who have to make use of the Rest and Be Thankful, and that I recognise the importance of recovering that route as quickly as possible. That is why we are continuing to take forward the important work to create the catch pits, which can assist in providing greater resilience on the road at the Rest and Be Thankful, and it is why work has already started on providing greater protection for the old military road in order to provide a much more resilient service on that road.

Equally, we have a commitment to look at an alternative route. I have commissioned work to identify a permanent long-term solution to the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful. In the spring of next year, I will be in a position to identify what that route will be and then to commission the work in moving it forward in the coming years.

I am sure that the member will recognise that the Government has committed to investing in transport infrastructure right across Scotland—in the central belt, the north-east, the north-west, the south-east and the south-west—to ensure that Scotland has the type of transport infrastructure that it needs for the 21st century.

That concludes portfolio question time. I apologise to the one member whom I could not call.