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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 11, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 11 March 2021

Agenda: Business Motion, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Motion Without Notice, Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill, Scottish Biometrics Commissioner (Appointment), Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity

The next item of business is portfolio questions. In order to get in as many members as possible, I ask for short and succinct questions and answers.

Broadband Roll-out (Dumfries and Galloway)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on broadband roll-out in Dumfries and Galloway. (S5O-05106)

Thinkbroadband reports that superfast coverage in Dumfries and Galloway stands at 87 per cent, up from 17 per cent in January 2014.

Dumfries and Galloway has 8,300 properties in scope for the R100 south lot contract, which delivered its first live connections in Biggar in Lanarkshire in December. Eligible south lot premises will receive a full-fibre solution, which allows gigabit connectivity. R100 contract build is programmed in phases, with build in Dumfries and Galloway across a number of phases. First connections in the area are likely to be delivered next month, with more than 850 properties in the Dumfries exchange area receiving connections by July.

I welcome the progress that will be made in the coming months, which will give more residents and businesses access to broadband.

The minister is aware that mobile connectivity is also a challenge in Dumfries and Galloway. What is the Scottish Government doing to improve that, bearing in mind that both broadband and mobile connectivity, as part of the telecommunications sector, are matters that are reserved to the United Kingdom Government?

Joan McAlpine is correct: mobile connectivity is reserved, as is broadband. However, we intervene through our own measures to address market failure. She will be aware that the Scottish 4G infill programme has been important for us. The first mast that we delivered was at New Luce in Galloway, and that site has been operational for more than a year. Four more sites in Dumfries and Galloway will be delivered through the project, at Ae near Dumfries, Auchenhessnane near Thornhill, Cairngarroch in southern Rhins and Loch Head in the Machars.

Good progress is being made, with all four sites expected to be operational in the coming months into the summer—the one in Ae is due to be operational this spring. All those masts, plus the two that are now live in Ettrick in Selkirkshire and Whitropefoot near Newcastleton in Liddesdale, in Ms McAlpine’s region of South Scotland, will help to improve mobile coverage in some of the most remote parts of Scotland. I am delighted that the programme is proving to be so successful. The Scottish Government’s website will, I hope, provide further progress updates on other masts across the network. I encourage members in other parts of Scotland to keep themselves posted on progress.

Only 7 per cent of premises in Dumfries and Galloway have full fibre. Although R100 will boost that number, it covers only 13 per cent of premises. If full fibre is seen as the best solution, does the minister agree that one helpful measure would be for the Scottish Government to consider mandating full fibre in all new-build properties? At present, around 6 per cent of new homes in Scotland continue to miss out on full-fibre connections—they are largely those on the smaller sites that are seen in rural areas such as Dumfries and Galloway.

Colin Smyth raises an important point. It is true that the full-fibre needs of new developments must also be addressed. I know that BT provides a package for any development of more than 20 properties—it is largely free full fibre, because of the scale of the development. I know that Mr Stewart, the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, is closely examining the matter in relation to building regulations.

With the pandemic, we have seen digital connectivity become not just a nice thing to have but an absolute necessity for people who work from home or who educate their children at home, so we want to see full fibre extended.

As Joan McAlpine indicated, regulation of and legislation on broadband are reserved to UK ministers, and we continue to press them to invest in the region and fulfil the promises that they have made around gigabit connectivity. I have had constructive discussions with Matt Warman MP about attracting further funding to Scotland. We look forward to seeing the UK Government come up with funding to meet the aspirations that it has expressed.

As R100 is taken forward in Dumfries and Galloway as well as in Orkney and Shetland, at the other end of the country, what assurances can the minister give that Openreach will be encouraged to work with local, suitably trained contractors? That would allow those contractors to benefit from the workstream and minimise the risks that are associated with essential workers moving around the country unnecessarily.

Liam McArthur raises a fair question. The commercial decision is for BT in fulfilling the contract, but if Mr McArthur wishes to provide details of any particular companies that are actively seeking to participate in the R100 programme—I know that he has made representations before—we can pass them on to BT and Openreach to ensure that those opportunities are taken up.

Mr McArthur is right to say that we want local jobs to be created around Scotland as a result of the £600 million investment in R100. I would like that to be extended to our island communities as we roll out the programme, with a long-term legacy of building up the supply chain. It would certainly be in our interests to make that happen, and I would be happy to follow that up with Mr McArthur.

Tay Cities Deal

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the Tay cities deal will have on Dundee. (S5O-05107)

The Scottish Government’s £150 million commitment to the Tay cities region deal demonstrates our support for the future of the whole region, including Dundee.

Our investment includes £31 million for two projects that will further enhance the city’s reputation for innovation. The cyberquarter at Abertay University and the biomedical cluster at the University of Dundee will both foster world-class expertise. They will also generate opportunities for local suppliers and will create more than 700 skilled jobs. We will ensure that those jobs are accessible to local people through our complementary £20 million investment in a regional skills development and employability programme.

The investment and the related jobs are very welcome. Can the cabinet secretary say more specifically what discussions the Scottish Government has had with Dundee City Council regarding Dundee’s 5G test-bed status and public wi-fi network to help further Dundee’s ambition to become a smart city, with the highest possible level of digital connectivity through the Tay cities deal?

The Scottish Government continues to work with Dundee City Council in taking forward work around the 5G test bed and public wi-fi network through the Scottish Futures Trust. We believe that that will be critical to Dundee in achieving its vision of becoming a smart city.

Deployment is expected to take place later this year. The initial focus will be around a full-fibre infrastructure programme, which will provide a platform for public wi-fi services and the development of a 5G test bed. That will act as a catalyst for the rest of Dundee to develop a 5G ecosystem capable of creating a wider smart region.

That is supported through the provision of around £2 million from the Tay cities region deal, which is aiding the development of demonstration projects around 5G technology. It is hoped that, by taking that forward, Dundee will be able to ensure its position not just as a leading city for inward investment but as a leading city in the deployment of 5G technology.

Edinburgh Airport (Routes)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact might be of any reduction in the number of routes served by Edinburgh airport following the lifting of the Covid-19 restrictions. (S5O-05108)

We expect that the number of routes serving Edinburgh airport will increase following the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions at home and abroad. At this stage, however, it is not possible to predict exact numbers or destinations.

Transport Scotland, working in partnership with VisitScotland and Scottish Development International, has a strong and successful track record of helping Scotland’s airports to secure new routes. We are using that well-established process to work with airports on route recovery. Our overall aim is to help Edinburgh airport to return to 2019 levels of connectivity as quickly as possible once travel restrictions can be safely lifted.

I am very grateful for that answer. Airport managers have confirmed to me that the Administration has conducted no impact analysis as to the long-term effects of the emergency on air travel. There is no route map out of the quarantine hotel requirements, and there has been no assessment of their impact on medium or long-range bookings.

The industry is on its knees, yet the task force established by the Government to offer clarity has not even met yet. When will it meet, and when does the cabinet secretary expect to have a route map to recovery for this important sector?

The important point is that the measures that we have had to introduce on managed isolation for international arrivals had to be taken forward urgently because of the risk from new variants. Given the clinical advice that ministers received on the risks that are associated with the introduction of new variants into the country, it would have been reckless not to act—and act quickly—on that advice. To be frank, it would be reckless for anyone, even the airports, to suggest that we should have taken much longer to deal with the situation.

We are already considering a potential route map for moving out of the use of managed isolation and the wider international travel restrictions that we have in place. Importantly, however, that route map needs to be driven by data, not by dates. The danger is that some in the aviation industry think that setting a date simply resolves the issues that the international travel restrictions are in place to deal with. It does not.

The reality is that the data on where we will be in April and May on opening our borders is still uncertain, given not only the domestic situation but the international situation. We know that in Europe, for example, the virus is still out of control. I assure the member that we will use the working group that we have set up and our engagement so far with airlines and airports as a mechanism to ensure that we plan our way through the process.

Road Network Improvements (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what funding is being provided to local authorities for improvements to the road network. (S5O-05109)

Responsibility for local road improvements lies with local authorities. The majority of funding to local authorities from the Scottish Government is provided via the block grant. We do not stipulate how authorities should utilise their allocations, but in 2021-22 we are delivering a funding package of £11.6 billion for local authorities, which provides an additional £335.6 million for vital day-to-day services in comparison with the 2020-21 settlement.

I have been contacted by a new group that was set up in Caithness to try to address the current state of the roads there. I have also written to the cabinet secretary directly about the matter. Will he commit to engaging with that group to help us find solutions before the roads become even more dangerous?

I am aware of the concerns that have been raised by an organisation called the Caithness roads recovery campaign. However, as I mentioned, the concerns that the group has raised are the responsibility of Highland Council, and any actions that need to be taken on the local road network are a matter for the council. The most effective way for the group to have its concerns addressed, therefore, is for it to meet Highland Council to discuss the issues, and for the council to consider what action can be taken, given the issues that the group has raised.

ScotRail Franchise (New Operator)

To ask the Scottish Government when the process will commence to appoint a new operator for the ScotRail franchise. (S5O-05110)

We are considering all options for the future operation of ScotRail services after the current contract, which is expected to end in March 2022. In doing so, we have to work within the relevant current legislation, which neither Scottish ministers nor this Parliament has the powers to change. We must also take into account the on-going impact of Covid-19, and we still await the publication of the United Kingdom Government’s white paper on rail. I expect to be in a position soon to provide an update to Parliament and to give the assurances that ScotRail staff and passengers would expect.

During the Abellio years of the ScotRail franchise, customers have watched on aghast as the Government has poured hundreds of millions of pounds into the company while they sit on overcrowded trains that often run on a delayed timetable. What action will the Government take to ensure that the next operator is publicly owned, so that we have a service that is up to scratch and which puts passengers before profits?

The member may be aware that I am not in favour of franchising and that I do not want to enter into a further franchise. Under the existing rail legislation, our only principal option involves franchising rail services. I would prefer not to be in a position of having another franchise, and I assure the member that the approach that we want to take would not involve the further franchising of the ScotRail contract.

Public Transport Providers (Financial Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what financial support it is providing to public transport providers to ensure that services can continue. (S5O-05111)

The cost of additional Covid response measures that have been agreed by the Scottish Government to date is £765 million. That can be broken down into £452 million for rail passenger services, £23 million for light rail, £37 million for ferry services and £253 million for bus, which includes a £61.4 million extension of funding that I announced earlier this week to support bus services until 27 June.

Will the cabinet secretary commit financial support for bus operators such as Lothian Buses in my region to provide positive messaging and campaigns to support the safe use of public transport when distancing measures are no longer required and users are actively encouraged to return to using public transport?

Lothian Buses is one of the public transport providers that have benefited from the very significant level of funding that we have provided over the past year.

Although it is important to recognise that people should make use of public transport only for essential journeys, it is also important to recognise that making use of public transport is safe, given the very significant measures that have been put in place by public transport providers. One of the important elements that we have taken forward over recent months is the encouragement of operators to maintain high standards in making sure that mitigation measures are in place. Equally, as we transition out of the pandemic, the transport transition plan will set out details of the actions that we will take with public transport providers to encourage people back to using public transport when that it is appropriate and safe; we will look at introducing the means of encouraging people back on to public transport.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s above-inflation increase in financial support for bus, rail and ferry services, all of which Mr Balfour voted against on Tuesday. How will the increase in ferry resource of nearly 13 per cent help to improve both the service and its resilience?

The funding that we are providing for ferry operators allows them to continue to maintain lifeline services to the Clyde and Hebridean network and to the northern isles. Alongside that, it provides them with the opportunity to plan for the delivery of the summer timetable, so that they can take appropriate measures in the recruitment of staff in order to be able to respond to an easing of travel restrictions should that occur in the weeks and months ahead, which I certainly hope will be the case. It has been important in helping to maintain those critical lifeline links and, at the same time, providing operators with the assurance that is necessary for planning the uplifting of the timetable once restrictions are lifted.

Road Infrastructure Improvements (North East Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Nestrans and Transport Scotland regarding road infrastructure improvements in the North East Scotland region. (S5O-05112)

Transport Scotland engages regularly and extensively with the north east of Scotland transport partnership, and all regional transport partnerships, on a range of transport matters including planned and proposed road infrastructure improvements. For example, Nestrans and other north-east partners engage with my Transport Scotland officials through the Aberdeen city region deal and the second strategic transport projects review regional transport working groups. In addition, Transport Scotland engages regularly with stakeholders, including Nestrans, as part of the design, development and assessment of existing road infrastructure schemes, including the A96 dualling programme and the A90/A937 Laurencekirk junction improvement scheme.

I remind colleagues that I am a councillor in the city of Aberdeen.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Nestrans has submitted its 2040 regional transport strategy to Government for approval. The strategy contains a number of vital improvements for infrastructure in the north-east, including the long overdue dualling of the A90 at the Toll of Birness junction. Will the Government support those proposals? If so, when can my constituents in the north-east expect progress to be made on those ambitious projects?

I have not had the opportunity to see the report that has been published or submitted by Nestrans, but I assure Tom Mason that we have a very close constructive engagement programme, which we take forward with Nestrans on a regular basis. The report that it has submitted to Transport Scotland will be given due consideration, and we will respond to the highlighted issues within the normal timeframe.

Infrastructure Investment Plan

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its infrastructure investment plan. (S5O-05113)

Our new five-year infrastructure investment plan, which was published on 4 February 2021, includes a pipeline of projects and programmes worth £26 billion. The first report on the progress of the pipeline of projects and programmes will be published in autumn 2021, and the first full annual progress report of the plan will be published in spring 2022.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s ambitious plans for the next five years. At this stage, can the cabinet secretary provide detail on what sort of projects might be planned for the kingdom of Fife? That is a matter of particular interest to my constituents.

Within the kingdom of Fife, a number of very specific projects are being taken forward, which are part of the new infrastructure investment plan. For example, the Levenmouth rail scheme is a £70 million project to reconnect from Thornton junction through to Leven. In the coming weeks, work is due to commence on a £32 million elective orthopaedic centre at the Victoria hospital, which will provide a stand-alone, all-encompassing elective orthopaedic services facility. There is the replacement for Inverkeithing high school, as well as the replacements for Woodmill and St Columba’s high schools, which will form part of a new community campus, as part of the £2 billion learning estate investment programme. We are also investing £98 million in the new-build Fife College campus at Dunfermline, which is presently at the planning stage.

Fife will also benefit from the focus on data-driven businesses, through the University of Edinburgh and the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal, including the hosting of the University of St Andrews Eden campus, alongside the academic provision that we have made for the hydrogen accelerator.

In addition to those projects, the new infrastructure investment plan outlines a number of national programmes, including £3.4 billion for affordable housing, our £600 million reaching 100 per cent—R100—broadband programme and £550 million for active travel, all of which will benefit the good people of the kingdom of Fife.

That concludes portfolio question time. I apologise to those members who made late bids for supplementary questions; time did not allow them to be asked.